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Bewildering Stories

Heinlein’s Characters:
Pinballs in the Game of Fate?

discussion with
euhal allen, Jerry Wright and Don Webb

Don wrote,

“I didn’t like Thorby and thought he was a bore. I kept waiting for him to do something... anything! He’s a pinball in a game of fate, and his travelogue seems pointless. Thorby never seems to graduate from “space school,” and I had the feeling the lessons are learned for him, as though they had been fished out of Heinlein’s grab bag of unwritten stories. I consider passive heroes a contradiction in terms; they’re almost always walking couch potatoes, who view a panorama without really entering into it and affecting it.”

This is the very thing that makes him interesting. As a person trained in History I have come to know that most of us are “pinballs in a game of fate,” so to speak. Very, very few of us become great movers and shakers. Very few of us become active heroes. Most of us are battered here and there by the pressures of the societies we live in.

So, how did Thorby acclimatize himself to each major culture that he became involved with. I think that he did a little better than most of us would, considering the amount of change that each culture brought to him. In each he not only survived, but became a useful part of that new society. There is the strength of his character, that he survived and progressed when most of us would not have done so. I think that is not a passive hero, but an active survivor.

Pop had taught Thorby to think, to analyze his surroundings and react to them in a positive, intelligent manner. Would that our own children have such tools to face life with.

Yet, life is such a thing that what each of us sees, though the same in actuality, is different in our eyes because we each have lived in different worlds, different surroundings. You may quite happily dismiss Thorby as a bore while I celebrate the small victories that he had on his journey. That way we can both be happy with our opinions and the validity of that particular wisdom we each have managed acquire.


Copyright © 2006 by euhal allen

I find it interesting that Don didn’t like Thorby. There is no question that he is a pinball in the game of life, but I didn’t find his travelogue pointless at all.

Citizen of the Galaxy is very much a favorite of mine, not so much for Thorby, but for the various milieus through which he is bounced. And yes, he seems a bit slow on the uptake, but that’s okay. This gives Heinlein a chance to explain and flesh out the cultures in which Thorby finds himself. And he does survive, and even flourish on Jubbelpore, on the Sisu, in the Hegemony Space Force, and as the heir to Rudbeck and Rudbeck.

Well, I guess it had to come... Don and I aren’t in slavish agreement on something.


Copyright © 2006 by Jerry Wright

As I mentioned a couple of times in issue 206, different people will like or dislike the same thing — and for the same reasons. Cats or dogs, anyone? Baseball or football? “Tastes great. Less filling?”

I’ve always admired Jerry’s long-suffering patience. It enables him to put up with and even enjoy things that I, who don’t have that quality of Jerry’s, sometimes find it hard to sit still for.

And I admire euhal’s realism and his taking the long view of history, a subject that has always interested me. Yes, euhal, you’re right: we are all “pinballs of fate,” as I put it. However, that is a given. More important and more interesting is that we’re thinking pinballs (my abject apologies, Blaise Pascal), and we can roll uphill. A little ways or a long ways, it matters not at all: once we do it, we win the game.

euhal, I don’t think either you or Jerry are fatalistic, by any means, and I take your points about what Thorby can and does learn. It’s just that I would make a poor Second Foundationer: “Enough of this psychohistory, Hari Seldon, let’s get on with the show.” He’d boot me over to the First Foundation in a single hyperspace jump.

Let’s give Citizen of the Galaxy a rest, then. Suffice it to say that it can be read in a number of ways, all of which tell us something about ourselves.

One novel of Heinlein’s I would read again is his little-mentioned Beyond This Horizon. It has a ramshackle plot complete with an anti-climax, but I love the premise and setting. In a somewhat futuristic society, everything is perfect: no poverty, no social problems, no conflict — except for petty squabbles over etiquette that are resolved by the ludicrous custom of dueling.

But people are not happy in that world, and Heinlein lets his characters roll off in any number of directions — good and bad — in the pursuit of happiness. One of the minor characters can’t accept idleness and opens a hairdressing salon. The main character, who packs an antique Colt revolver at the beginning of the story, eventually outgrows dueling. And what of genetic engineering, which is the main technological feature of the novel? People turn out to be much more complex than their ingredients.

Beyond This Horizon begins with literal pinball games. And the novel itself is a game full of figurative pinballs — all rolling uphill. Good game, good show, Robert A. Heinlein!


Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

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