Goldfish Bowl
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1942
as by Anson MacDonald

collected in —
The Menace from Earth

Off the Main Sequence

May 2010

An awesome creation

Robert Heinlein draws on his American Naval background to open with a striking image:

On the horizon lay the immobile cloud which capped the incredible waterspouts known as the Pillars of Hawaii.

Captain Blake lowered his binoculars. "There they stand, gentlemen."

In addition to the naval personnel of the watch, the bridge of the hydrographic survey ship U. S. S. Mahan held two civilians; the captain's words were addressed to them. The elder and smaller of the pair peered intently through a spy-glass he had borrowed from the quartermaster. "I can't make them out," he complained. ...

"They are still beyond the horizon," Blake explained. "You see only the upper segments. But they stand just under eleven thousand feet from water line to cloud — if they are still running true to form."

"Goldfish Bowl" is a markedly off-beat Heinlein science-fiction story, and might have been printed as easily in Astounding's fantasy companion magazine, Unknown Worlds — where some of Heinlein's more overt fantasies did appear. In addition to the gigantic twin two-mile-high waterspouts in the ocean, the novelet also displays ball lightning and other inexplicable phenomena of a Fortean sort which could be at home in Eric Frank Russell's Sinister Barrier.

The plot centers on the plans of the two civilian scientists for one of them, englobed in a bathysphere, to ascend the Kanaka column of seawater and return down the Wahini column. The survey ship's captain reasonably thinks they're crazy, but he has orders to assist them as far as he safely can do so.

A historical aside: The novelet's unusual nature generated a bit of backstory significant in the relationship of editor John W. Campbell and Heinlein. Fans should look up James Gifford's discussion in Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion. The fascinating correspondence is in Heinlein's memoir, Grumbles from the Grave.

The theme of "Goldfish Bowl" is creation, and orders of life-forms. It would not be amiss to say that it is a philosophical or theological story, told in a clear style and straightforward treatment to present its awesome subject matter in full force .

"Goldfish Bowl" scared me thoroughly when I first read it in my early teens. Some of its imagery became part of my permanent stock of impressions. Even with my far wider and deeper perspective of today, I find it still unsettling.

As a companion to your experience with Heinlein's classic story, I suggest reading (or re-reading) Eric Frank Russell's novelet, "Hobbyist" (1947). The thematic basis is very similar, the tone is quite different: they are not synoptic.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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