Reading Heinlein: Blowups Happen

As part of my continued attempts to actually finish the series of blog posts I’ve started, here’s part three of my looks at Heinlein’s Future History work. For those who haven’t read them, here’s parts one and two.

Blowups Happen is one of Heinlein’s more acclaimed early works, but is interesting in retrospect for very different reasons than it was at the time.

It’s considered a classic largely because it was one of the first science fiction stories to take a technological innovation for granted and to tell a story about how that innovation affects both society and individuals, rather than directly about that innovation itself. In this case, the innovation is nuclear power — in a world where nuclear power is inherently much more dangerous than it is in the real world — but the story is actually about the effects of stress on people in dangerous but important jobs. The pulp SF plot (they discover that the power plant is so unstable that it would almost certainly blow up earth — JUST LIKE THE MOON WAS BLOWN UP BY ITS INHABITANTS!!!) is clearly just a peg on which to hang the ideas about pressure.

But it’s the source of those ideas which is interesting in retrospect. Heinlein here bases his super-scientist character, Lentz, who is both the greatest psychologist and the greatest mathematical physicist in the world, on Count Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics:

“I can’t help but be surprised that one man should attain eminence in two such widely differing fields as psychology and mathematics. And right now I’m perfectly convinced of your ability to pass yourself off as a physicist. I don’t understand it.”

The smile was more amused, without being in the least patronizing, nor offensive. “Same subject, symbology. You are a specialist; it would not necessarily come to your attention.”

“I still don’t follow you.”

“No? Man lives in a world of ideas. Any phenomenon is so complex that he cannot possibly grasp the whole of it. He abstracts certain characteristics of a given phenomenon as an idea, then represents that idea as a symbol, be it a word or a mathematical sign. Human reaction is almost entirely reaction to symbols, and only negligibly to phenomena. As a matter of fact,” he continued, removing the cigarette holder from his mouth and settling into his subject, “it can be demonstrated that the human mind can think only in terms of symbols.

“When we think, we let symbols operate on other symbols in certain, set fashions—rules of logic, or rules of mathematics. If the symbols have been abstracted so that they are structurally similar to the phenomena they stand for, and if the symbol operations are similar in structure and order to the operations of phenomena in the real world, we think sanely. If our logic-mathematics, or our word-symbols, have been poorly chosen, we do not think sanely.

“In mathematical physics you are concerned with making your symbology fit physical phenomena. In psychiatry I am concerned with precisely the same thing, except that I am more immediately concerned with the man who does the thinking than with the phenomena he is thinking about. But the same subject, always the same subject.”

This is, almost word for word, the argument of Korzybski.

Korzybski is one of those figures, like Buckminster Fuller, Wilhelm Reich, or Nikola Tesla, who anyone who spends a lot of time around science fiction fans, libertarians, or Discordians, will eventually come across, and like them he could perhaps best be described as a genius-crank.

There is a whole personality type, of which those three are perhaps the best known — very highly intelligent men (for they’re almost all men), who are trained in an area which isn’t scientific, but is science-proximate (usually engineering, but occasionally medicine or psychiatry), who have one or two genuinely useful insights upon which they then build a whole semi-mystical superstructure, usually involving the creation of a vast quantity of neologisms. The work of these people can be infuriating to read, as at times it can read like schizophrenic pressured speech, but then there can be amazingly lucid insights that make it worth ploughing through.

(Yes, I realise that many people who’ve read my more experimental work may think that the description above also fits some of my writing — it takes one to know one, and there’s a reason I’m so familiar with these people’s work…)

Korzybski’s main insight, described at great length in his book Science and Sanity, is that “the map is not the territory” — that human beings think using symbols, and that those symbols represent reality, but are not the same as reality. He goes on to claim that many problems with the way people think — mental illnesses, neuroses, and so forth — are caused by people using symbols that don’t match up to reality. In particular, he argues that the “is of identity” — the verb to be, used in phrases like “he is an angry person” or “my dog is fat” — makes people think that statements which only apply to a temporary situation (he may be angry right now because someone hit him, but he’s quite calm the rest of the time, and my dog may lose weight) instead refer to an intrinsic property of the thing being referred to.

This is actually quite a useful insight — or to rewrite that in E-prime, the variant of English some of Korzybski’s followers use, “this seems to me, in my present mixed state of ignorance and knowledge, quite a useful insight”. But note that in that last sentence I referred to “followers”. Korzybski’s work tends to appeal to the type of people who like either joining or forming cults, and while General Semantics is not itself a cult, it has had a huge influence on movements such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming. But the biggest influence it had was on L. Ron Hubbard, who at the time Blowups Happen was written was a friend of Heinlein and a fellow science fiction writer. Korzybski also had a huge influence on A.E. Van Vogt, another SF writer, and on John Campbell, Heinlein’s close friend and the editor who bought this story. It’s not very surprising that when Hubbard founded Dianetics (the movement that would later become Scientology), Campbell and Van Vogt would be among his most prominent supporters.

This is important in our look at Heinlein because it’s the first sign we’ve seen in his fiction of his attraction to the more unusual ideas that will turn up when we get to the World-As-Myth books.

From a purely literary side of things, the story is relatively decent. The material about the moon seems to have been put in purely to make it more SF, and it has the same flaws Heinlein always has, of most of the story being people expositing to each other about stuff they already know, but it’s fairly readable. However, for modern readers, it still leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth. Except for one scene, every character in the story is a white male. In that one scene, set in a bar, we get a black character — a Steppin Fetchit caricature who talks in exaggerated dialect — and a woman — described as “something” rather than “someone”, so literally objectified, and implied as strongly as was possible in Astounding in 1940 to be a prostitute. Neither character actually plays any role in the plot.

So the story can feel unpleasant for those who are used to nonwhite nonmale people being treated as people, and given that it’s not a wonderful story on its own merits, and that it actually doesn’t fit very well into the future history chronology (the world in those stories doesn’t especially need nuclear power because of having free solar power, and the rocket fuel developed in this story has to be handwaved away in The Man Who Sold The Moon in order for that story to work at all), it’s probably one to skip if you’re only looking for the highlights when reading Heinlein…

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6 Responses to Reading Heinlein: Blowups Happen

  1. andrewducker says:

    It was fairly obvious to me that at that point RAH was interested in Korzybski, and all sorts of other things that were a bit ahead of the liberal curve (including universal benefit in Beyond This Horizon).

    It’s just a shame that he recoiled from it in later life.

    Also, how did you get through an article that talked about Korzybski and _not_ mention the other writer whose first two initials are also RA?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, this is something I’m going to get to later on, talking about his change in politics (he was an extreme left-wing socialist follower of Upton Sinclair in 1940, and only really started veering seriously left in 1945).

      And talking about Korzybski’s influence on RAW would have required a whole extra essay ;)

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Sorry to be dense; who is RAW?

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Robert Anton Wilson, a novelist (mostly science fiction and historical fiction), anarchist, satirist, and New Age conspiracy theory/occultism writer. Hugely influential on Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Ken Campbell, the KLF, and most counterculturey people from about 1974 on.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    I don’t know Heinlein’s social background, but it was certainly possible in America, in 1940, to live in all-white areas where black people would have seemed strange and exotic, and not the sort of ordinary person you’d write into your stories. But surely even America in 1940 didn’t consider women so very strange and exotic?

    Against this backdrop, I suppose it’s very much to Asimov’s credit that the principle human character in his Robots series of short stories (starting in 1945) is Dr. Susan Calvin.

    (That said, I am currently re-reading the Foundation series, and it’s really startling in 2014 to see how male-dominated it is. Only half way through the second book is there a female character of any importance at all; and only at the very end of of that book does she do anything of importance.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Heinlein was actually politically something of a feminist by 1940 standards (meaning he held “advanced” opinions that now look in some ways worse than the reactionary ones), but before becoming a writer his two big occupations had been politics and the military (specifically naval engineering). It makes sense that he would think of a nuclear power plant as being a bit like a big Navy engineering project, and it’s possible that in *that* environment in the time Heinlein had worked in that area (late twenties through mid thirties, IIRC), you would indeed only have found women working as prostitutes in that kind of environment…

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