In 1955, Robert Heinlein wrote a letter to fellow sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon during a time when Sturgeon was desert-dry, creatively. I’ve cut out a few charming personal details as well as some philosophical questions that clearly motivate Heinlein’s copious creativity. (Read the rest here–fascinating!)
What’s left is a stunning, generous collection of story-prompts. People have published writing-idea books with less to chew on than this. And seriously, who has these on the tip of his pencil on a Friday afternoon? And then just gives them away?
(One who trusts that deep questions will always, always generate new reasons to write, I think. And one who has faith that the same good idea can be used artfully, successfully, and differently by more than one author with creative integrity. And, probably, one who cares about–maybe even loves–his fellow worker.)
11 Feb 1955
But I will do the best I can at this distance. I must say that I am flattered at the request. To have the incomparable and always scintillating Sturgeon ask for ideas is like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it…
–A society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you. Of course if your valuation is low and your manners are crude, your survival probabilities are low, too.
–What are the minimum, indispensable functions of government? What functions are present in all human societies? Is it possible to name anything which obtains in one society which is not differently just the reverse in another? Or not done at all?…One thing is sure: many of the things we take for granted are not necessary to a stable society, but we take them for granted. You could get a Campbell-style story out of doubting the most sacred of sacred cows…
–Suppose a hypnoanalyst makes a deep investigation into a schizoid…and comes up with with the fact that it is a separate and non-crazy personality in the body, distinct from the nominal one, and that this new personality is a refugee from (say) 2100 A.D., when conditions are so intolerable that escape into another body and another time (even this period) is to be preferred, even at the expense of living more or less helplessly in another man’s body.
–Or do it this way: hypnoanalyst hypnotizes patient; second personality emerges and refuses to go away. Original-owner personality is a nogood, a bastard, a public enemy, a wifebeater, etc.; new personality is a real hero-type, good, smart, hardworking, etc. What is the ethical situation? Should the analyst try his damnedest to suppress and wipe out the false personality and give the body back to its owner? Or should he accept that the world is improved by the change? This could be made quite critical.
–What is a personality? A memory track? A set of evaluations? A set of habit patterns? What happens to a soul in a transorbital lobotomy? Is it murder to kill a man’s personality, sick though it may be, in order to make his body a bit more tractable for ward nurses and relatives?
–You could have a hell of a hassle in a society in which there were a group, large or small, of illuminati who really do know what happens after death…and who in consequence have different motivations and different purposes from the others who are the way we are now. Just for a touch, they might try a man in absentia for suiciding to avoid his obligations…then maybe have some one else suicide to go after him and carry out the sentence.
–A statistician in the Department of Commerce is fiddling with the new digital computer, running some data from the last census. No doubt about it; the machine says that there are more red-headed babies than there ought to be. Must be some mistake in the data; the machine can’t be wrong. The enrollments in dental schools are down, too. And appendectomies have decreased. Should the reports of parthenogenesis be rejected as impossible? Why so many of them?
–“June 28—The new bull calf looks better all the time. Met a leprechaun today. Nice little guy. I’m going to have to drain the south forty.”
–This character is absent-minded. When he day dreams his reveries are very real. He is especially likely to do this in public transportation; he can be riding a bus, catch a glimpse of a house which reminds him of one he knew in another city. Trouble is that when he gets off the bus he is like as not, if he is still absent-minded, to get off in the city he has been day-dreaming about, instead of the one he was in. When he was a kid and had not been anywhere, this simply got him scolded and he had a reputation for being too dopy to notice that streetcar he was getting into. But now that he is grown and knows many cities (instead of just neighborhoods in one city) it is downright embarrassing, as he is likely to get on a bus in Cincinnati and wind up three-quarters of an hour later in Seattle with one dollar and thirty-seven cents in his pocket.
–One day his ability to recapture other places moves him not only to another city but back to the Taft administration. Well, maybe it is all for the best.
–The bloke sells dreams, in pills. Euphoria, along with your fantasy, is guaranteed. The pills are not toxic, nor are they harmful the way narcotics are, but they are habit-forming as the euphoria dreams are much better than reality. Can the Pure Foods & Drugs people act?
–This guy sells soap and cosmetics, door to door like the Fuller Brush man. She tries their beauty soap; she becomes beautiful. So she tries their vanishing cream…
–A little cat ghost, padding patiently around in limbo, trying to find that familiar, friendly lap…
–Story about two countries fighting not with men, not with robots, but with mutated-animal soldiers. Fighter-pilot cats (all the gadgetry automatic, but the piloting done by the supercat), Rhino tanks, ape paratroopers, sea lion “frogmen” etc.
–Fundamentalist congregation, convinced that faith can move mountains, concentrates on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills—and the greatest neo-Egyptian sculpture ever carved disappears, mountain and all. Should the Public Works Administration sue the church? Or is that suing God? Or should they ask them to pray it back? Or should they systematize this into a new form of theo-engineering? If so, civil engineers will have to have divinity degrees as well in the future. What is faith without (public) works?
–A Hollywood stunt man kills himself getting a really fine effect. They cut it out of the picture. Will he haunt the producer?
–A man is troubled by gophers in his garden. He digs into their burrow, finds a nest with baby gophers in it, kills them. The gophers really move in on him now, undermine his house, flood it, wreck it completely, while he tries to save it.
–A seeing-eye dog growing too old to do his work…
–There is something important other than rest in the notion of sleep. In sleep we almost catch the secret, almost understand what it is all about. It might be possible to abolish sleep; we might develop a race of able, smart, hard, efficient people who never need to sleep. Only they wouldn’t have any souls.
–Once there was a man who could not stand it. First he lost the power to read and then the headlines did not bother him any longer. Then he lost the power to understand speech and then the radio could not bother him. He became quite happy and the wrinkles smoothed out of his face and he quit being tense and he painted and modelled in clay and danced and listened to music and enjoyed life.
–Then a clever psychiatrist penetrated his fugue and made him sane again. Now he could read and listen to the radio and he became aware again of the Cold War and juvenile delinquency and rapes and rapacity and et cetera ad nauseam.
–He still couldn’t stand it. He killed quite a number of people before they got him.
–There was this man Flammonde who came to our town and grandly borrowed what he needed. The power that Flammonde had was to make everyone around him happier, richer in experience, greater in his own self-esteem. Naturally a man like that would not have to work. It is a neat trick.
–What exact knowledge of how human beings work can enable a man always to make other people happier simply by his own presence?
–Cats have made a racket and a good thing out of this knowledge for seven thousand years without even bothering to flatter the recipient of the pleasure.
Ted, I have about run dry and Ginny has just announced dinner…Best to you, your wife, and kids—
(Read the whole letter at Letters of Note.)