Let There Be Light
by Robert A. Heinlein

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Super Science Stories, May 1940
as by Lyle Monroe

collected in —
The Man Who Sold the Moon

Off the Main Sequence April 2003

Less heat, more light

Some of Robert A. Heinlein's shorter science fiction stories moved into or out of his classic Future History series after 1940 as he refined the list over the years. "Let There Be Light" is one of the earliest entries in the sequence, an enjoyable minor story with an interesting lifeline itself.

"Let There Be Light" first appeared in the second issue of Super Science Stories, along with others by L. Sprague de Camp, P. Schuyler Miller, James Blish and so on. Frederik Pohl, then the twenty-year-old editor of the new pulp magazine, mentions in his autobiography The Way the Future Was that he was fortunate to snap up some good stories that John W. Campbell rejected for the industry leader, Astounding Science Fiction. Supposedly Campbell found some of the dialogue too risque in "Let There Be Light".

Heinlein was prolific enough that even some of his most striking stories in Astounding appeared under his major pseudonym Anson MacDonald. In his own posthumous collection of letters, Grumbles from the Grave, Heinlein specifies how the rejects that he had to sell at a lower word-rate would not appear under the Heinlein or MacDonald names. So in Super Science Stories, "Let There Be Light" was bylined Lyle Monroe, a pseudonym that also stood in for some other Heinlein off-trail stories such as "Beyond Doubt" and "Lost Legacy".

In a companion magazine's preview of coming stories, editor Frederik Pohl soon gave tremendous praise to "Let There Be Light":

The May [1940] Super Science Stories ... is crammed with some of the finest science fiction ever to get into print. To instance just one story, take the case of "Let There Be Light," by Lyle Monroe, a comparative newcomer. This is the story of a man who learns the secret of cold light: i.e., learns how to make one watt of electricity do the work that forty do now by eliminating the waste in the form of heat. Not exactly a brand-new conception, you say? No, not if you just leave it at that. But leave it at that is just what Author Monroe doesn't do; and the tale of what happens when his characters take that simple invention and stand it on its head will hold you engrossed through every page. And besides this sterling yarn, which every science fiction fan will place in his private gallery of immortals, there are stories by Ray Cummings, L. Sprague de Camp, P. Schuyler Miller, Raymond Z. Gallun, and others.
Frederik Pohl
Astonishing Stories, April 1940

Among the ironies here is that comparative newcomer Heinlein in his own name was into the very steep rise that would take him within a year to the top of the field, beyond the better-known names that Pohl lists, though Pohl couldn't use the Heinlein byline. And at the beginning of his own long career, the youthful Pohl was an officially anonymous editor himself, not listed on the masthead; with his own stories appearing pseudonymously.

Revised, revised, sidelined, & recovered

"Let There Be Light" continued its checkered history into book form. A lightly revised version was included in the first hardcover Future History collection, The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), one of six stories therein; many paperback printings have only four stories, but including another tweaked version of "Let There Be Light".

Still later, Heinlein left it altogether out of his omnibus collection of Future History stories, The Past Through Tomorrow (1967). In that big but not-quite-definitive collection, "Douglas-Martin sun-power screens" is listed in the Technical column of the Future History chart, but scientists Archibald Douglas and Mary Lou Martin are dropped from the Characters column, as is their tale from the Stories column.

Ron Grube points out to me that the energy technology developed in "Let There Be Light" is a foundation for the later Future History; it should not be omitted.

Why the niggling revisions? For whatever reasons, Heinlein clearly modified some of the flirtatious, humorously suggestive bits of dialogue — or had to allow book editors to modify it. But even in the original version, there is no nudity, no sex, no so-called bad words — hard to imagine that any smidgen of it could be remotely offensive, even when it was written in 1939.

A devolution of pinups

Sally Rand, leggy with balloon Near the beginning of the story, Douglas catches sight of Mary Lou Martin, another scientist he is expecting to meet later that evening; but he has no idea yet who she is:

The restaurant where he dined alone was only partly filled. It wouldn't become lively until after the theatres were out, but Douglas appreciated the hot swing band and the good food. Toward the end of his meal, a young woman walked past his table and sat down, facing him, one table away. He sized her up with care. Pretty fancy! Figure like a strip dancer, lots of corn-colored hair, nice complexion, and great big soft blue eyes. Rather dumb pan, but what would you expect?

For later versions, strip dancer is toned down to dancer. The original sharp phrase is de-focused, bringing it in line with this dialogue a little later, and its revision. In the original version, at their second encounter Douglas says:

"Aw, don't get sore — I was just needling you. It simply tickled me that the distinguished Doctor Martin should look so much like Sally Rand. [...]"

The fabulous Sally Rand is the real fan dancer and actress who became famous at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933-1934; earlier she was a high-school classmate of Heinlein's in Kansas City. Aside from the personal connection with Heinlein, I'd rate Sally Rand as intrinsically a more interesting figure than the later, supposedly more timely or contemporary, substitutions into this passage of World War II pinup Betty Grable or 1950s actress Marilyn Monroe. Cab Calloway's rolling, slinky song "Lady With a Fan" is about Sally Rand.

There are several other tiny excisions of flirtatious banter and description, a half-line or line at a time, the story losing a little focus with each. Enough remains to give the flavor. Rather like lingerie, Sally Rand's fan dances and bubble dances were choreographed to be teasing and flirtatious without being revealing; sexy fun, but safely within the law. The original "Let There Be Light" plays this game far better than the revisions.

A metaphysical, psychological, economic question

Who makes light? Let there be light — these almost are the opening words of the Bible. When he wishes, Heinlein speaks the language of the Saints, to the glory of Man. This is the touch used for the Everyman refugees of "Water Is for Washing"; while in "Let There Be Light" he seems to be joking with the creative sinners. Later, in Stranger in a Strange Land, he mixes and merges saints and sinners inextricably.

Why is "Let There Be Light" now a semi-orphan in print? I suspect less for its mildly sexy dialogue and descriptive bits, than because the plot hinges on a populist idea that corrupt big-business buys up and suppresses promising inventions. Would Heinlein have cared to endorse this almost thirty years on in 1967, when The Past Through Tomorrow was compiled? The risque dialogue could be, and was, easily tweaked for the earlier book collections without fatally damaging the story. But take out the invention-suppression concept, and the plot disintegrates.

It's a fun story, and contributes a significant strand of technical background to the Future History. Just remember, when you read "modernized" reprints of this little scientific romance, that for his lady scientist Heinlein had in mind his friend, the petite hourglass Sally Rand.


© 2003 Robert Wilfred Franson

DLF facilitated this.

Bigger editing problems:
Heinlein's Missed Bestsellers

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