Aug 13 2010 6:21pm

Heinlein and The Saturday Evening Post

Every student of Heinlein knows that among the number of things he did during his career, one of the more significant events was selling four science fiction short stories to The Saturday Evening Post in the late 40s, thus becoming the first writer of the genre to graduate from “the pulps,” as the science fiction magazines of the time were known, to writing fiction for “the slicks,” the name for the higher-end, general interest magazines. And among those magazines the Post was at the top of the heap, having the highest circulation of any magazine in America at the time.

Why had Heinlein tried placing the story in a magazine that hadn’t published science fiction before? One obvious reason was for the money: The Saturday Evening post paid a multiple of what Heinlein could have earned from John Campbell and Astounding, and that of course was reason enough in itself, especially for a man who, as I noted in my earlier entry about Heinlein, wasn’t always flush with cash. Another reason was because Street & Smith, the publisher of Astounding, where Heinlein placed much of his fiction, had declared it was buying “all rights” to work it published, and Heinlein, who had an eye toward reprints and adaptations, refused to sell his work under such terms.

But Learning Curve points out another reason, which is of interest to me: Heinlein felt that there was a need to propagandize and popularize the idea of space travel and exploration, for a number of reasons, not a few related to the already-chilling cold war between the US and the Soviets. Writing for the pulps in that regard would be preaching to the converted; placing science fiction in the Post, on the other hand, would be putting it into the laps of people who had never read science fiction before, or who avoided it as something for the eggheads and misfits.

And to do that, Heinlein was more than willing to meet his audience halfway, as this bit from Learning Curve notes, describing Heinlein’s second story for the Post, “Space Jockey”:

[It was] a story about a space pilot whose job took him away from home, to his wife’s distress. It was the kind of perennial human story that might have featured a long-distance trucker or railway engineer—the kind of story most familiar to readers of the Post—and this allowed Heinlein to portray the inexpressibly exotic professions of the new frontier in very comfortable human terms. This exactly fit into the propaganda purposes he started writing with more than a year ago.

This pinged quite a bit for me as a writer, because while science fiction as a genre does very well with the general public in the film and television media, there’s still resistance to getting a mainstream fiction reader to allow themselves to be seen with a science fiction book that’s explicitly presented as science fiction (as opposed to the camouflaged science fiction of The Road or Never Let Me Go).

As a science fiction writer, I don’t have the sort of overt sociopolitical agenda that Heinlein felt obliged to promote, but where he and I link up is on the idea that science fiction needs to find ways out of its own comfortable market settings, and that it’s perfectly all right to meet new readers halfway. This is a position that will sometimes get you ribbed—Heinlein got some criticism by friends and fellow writers who accused him good-naturedly or otherwise of selling out by writing for the Post—or dismissed as lightweight. Fair enough, but on the other hand, one of the reasons Robert Heinlein is Robert Heinlein is because he recognized the value of bringing new readers into the genre, and making it easy for them to get through the door.

One of the things I’m fond of telling people is that when I was writing Old Man’s War, the reader I kept in mind was my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law is an avid reader but she doesn’t read science fiction; she reads Nora Roberts and Julie Garwood and other writers like them. Nevertheless I knew she was going to read my book, because she actually likes me, you see, and I wanted to make sure than when she read the book, she wouldn’t get lost on page one. My mother-in-law was not the target audience for Old Man’s War, but I wanted to include her in the audience too. I also figured that if my mom-in-law to enjoy the book, then pretty much anyone could as well, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

I didn’t know it explicitly at the time, but it turns out my thinking on the matter was close to Heinlein’s thinking when he was writing for the Post. He wasn’t writing with my mother-in-law in mind, of course. But he was writing with people like her in mind. It worked out well for him, and not trivially, it wasn’t a bad break for the science fiction genre of writing, either.

John Scalzi’s first published novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won him 2006’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; since then, he has published five more novels. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, a collection of essays from his popular weblog The Whatever, won the Hugo for Best Related Work in 2009. He is currently serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.

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1. Foxessa
Current opinion says that giving a pass for wrong doings due to time lived doesn't work. For instance:

"In Ken Burns Civil War doc, historian Barbara Fields argues against giving people an "of their time" pass, because often there are people in that time who are on the right side of history. You can't at once credit the enlightened, without calling out those who stumbled around in the darkness--especially those who did so willfully."

Or as the song goes about Thomas Jefferson, he chose "To live off slavery all his life long."

He knew better too, judging by his own writings. He knew slavery was wrong and evil. But he couldn't deal in any kind of way with the idea of how he himself and his culture could exist without it, and he had it made.

However, I'm not about to suggest that this was the same deal for RH -- except, that it is always more convenient for the rest of us that aren't personally affected by the lack of liberty and opportunity and the right to choose to make such decisions.

Again, not a criticism of RH, but an observation.
john mullen
2. johntheirishmongol
Fox - what are you saying? RAH was wrong where? Didn't push the boundaries where? Unless you have something specific to criticize, your post makes no sense at all
John Scalzi
3. Scalzi

Wow, that comment would have been awesome had it been even remotely related to the entry to which it was attached.
Steven Halter
4. stevenhalter
Does the biography mention how Heinlein thought he had done in introducing space travel via the Post?
5. JohnnyYen
John - man, that oculd so easily have been me, with all the threads open and bouncing from one to 'tother and replying madly. Surely Foxessa mant it for the Heinlein: Racist Bastard or Evil Patriarchal Cracker? thread ....

That's a great point you make about imagining your readers a s people outside the genre walls. Thanks for that -
6. Foxessa
I apologize -- that comment was for the discussion going on around Mitch Wagner's latest entry.

How it got here, I don't know, other than I was, as so often when I read and / or comment on this site, making dinner. As I always tell my husband, writing and cooking are not two activities that I multi-task well. Either the food gets burned, forgotten and / or late, or I botch the writing.

It certainly doesn't belong as a response to your entry!

Love, C.
7. Bill Pattrson
Foxessa -- I have to confess I'm a little confused as to the point your making, as to either thread.

Are you saying that it was a wrongdoing for Heinlein to be aggressively anti-racist in 1941 (pick any year you like) and it is for this that he should not be given a "pass"?

Or is the "wrongdoing" not being in perfect agreement with the particular fashion of anti-racism to which you have attached yourself?

Or something else? I'm having trouble wrapping my head around this -- while not disagreeing with the general principle at all.
9. t-dawg
I think science fiction (and even fantasy) publishers could make GREAT strides towards not alienating people who don't think of themselves as readers of sci-fi by toning down the cover designs, and making them more "conventionally" chic.
Mitch Wagner
10. MitchWagner
But should they, t-dawg? I've seen several businesses fail by attempting to re-invent themselves to appeal to the mainstream and, in the process of so doing, alienating their existing customer base. GEnie died that way, and I've been watching Second Life do the same thing for the past two years.
David Dyer-Bennet
11. dd-b
What I think of as the really core, fannish, SF readers don't pick based on covers. We may complain bitterly about the covers, or we may like them, but we're talking about the covers of books we have already purchased; hence the publisher does not care what we think about the covers.

Mostly, we go into the store knowing what books we're going to buy, although in the old days one might be surprised by something coming out (easier to know what's expected these days).
Mitch Wagner
12. MitchWagner
There's also the question of whether the covers of science fiction books are, in fact, alienating to mainstream readers.
Robert James
13. DocJames
Forry Ackerman actually wrote at the time that the SEP stories made him sick, because RAH was turning his back on SF....

Campbell wasn't particularly fond of them either, although I've always felt that response had an odor of sour grapes, given that he was trying to get RAH to write for him, and with the sole exception of "Gulf", got nothing out of him in the late forties. The tale of the rights battle is one of the great unknown secrets of RAH's career. Every writer who now only sells first serial rights to his stories owes RAH for this.

I own two of the three SEP issues; while on an order considerably lower, I have always explained this breakthrough as akin to Jackie Robinson playing for the Dodgers: nobody thought it would ever happen. RAH in the SEP was a writer consigned to the ghetto making it in the majors.

Thanks again, John. Wish we had time to actually attend each other's panels at the 2007 Heinlein Centennial -- as it was, it was just my shout of praise to you, and your hallway attempt to talk. Being on twenty panels will do terrible things to my free time....
14. sc9842
I don't think you can call The Road science fiction, camouflaged or otherwise.
16. Tom Everett
Call 'The Road' a Postmodern re-telling of Robinson Crusoe and you're getting closer to what it is than calling it Science Fiction.

Or you could recategorise 'Robinson Crusoe' as a Sci-fi. One man's ship crashes somewhere inaccessible, and alone and unaided by civilisation they fight desperately for survival. Sounds like a good generic Sci-fi plot to me. :-)
17. Zachary Hill
"The Road" is science fiction. I don't know how else to describe it. It's set in the future, post-apocalyptic, and is speculative. To call it otherwise would be pretentious.
18. Mike Hobart
Back in the 1960s, Penguin Books in the UK went through a phase of using abstract art on the covers of their science fiction line. The books looked good and attracted the eye in a bookstore. I wonder if anyone knows whether their sales went up or down during that period?

And "The Road" seems to belong to a long line of SF stories about collapsed civilizations - the first one that comes to mind would be "The Long Loud Silence" by Bob Tucker.

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