The Observatory: The Pleasant Duality of Robert Heinlein and Anson MacDonald

(Robert Heinlein, as sketched in the April-May issue of Amazing Stories. Artist uncredited.)

In the January 1980 issue of Analog Science Fiction there’s a special feature covering the history of the Analytical Laboratory. An attempt at calculating author popularity, the Analytical Laboratory is a monthly feature wherein authors’ pieces from a given issue are ranked based on reader response, and the results, surprisingly, matter: the author to get the top spot receives a bonus payment. The aforementioned special feature includes a ranking of the most popular authors to appear in Astounding/Analog between 1938 and 1976, with a couple quirks: pseudonyms get their own entries, and each author must have had at least ten fiction pieces published in the magazine. The funny result was that Robert Heinlein, one of the most famous of all SF authors and arguably the single most important author in the history of American SF, was and was not at the top.

Heinlein, under his own name, came in at a very respectable second place, with “Anson MacDonald,” having published just enough works to meet the minimum, taking the top spot. Presumably the serial installments for Sixth Column and Beyond This Horizon, both by MacDonald, count as individual entries. MacDonald was, of course, also Heinlein, or rather Heinlein was MacDonald. Heinlein’s middle name is Anson, after all, and apparently he came up with MacDonald, a Scottish-sounding name, to appeal to editor John W. Campbell.

But let’s rewind a bit.

Heinlein made his genre debut in the August 1939 issue of Astounding with “Life-Line,” a science-fantasy yarn (Heinlein had also submitted it to Unknown, Astounding‘s fantasy-oriented sister magazine) that, contrary to most debut stories by great authors, still reads well. It also proved pretty popular with readers, ranking second in the Analytical Laboratory for the October 1939 issue. Still, while it was and still is a good read, “Life-Line” was only a small taste of the storm to come. Heinlein only published one more story in 1939 with “Misfit,” but 1940 immediately kicked off with what can only be called a one-author renaissance. In the January 1940 issue of Astounding we got “Requiem,” one of Heinlein’s most popular early stories, having been adapted for radio multiple times, and which was pretty close to winning the Retro Hugo for the Best Short Story of 1940, only losing to Isaac Asimov’s iconic “Robbie.”

The February 1940 issue saw the first installment of If This Goes On—, an ambitious if uneven piece of work (see my review of both installments here and here) that showed a highly talented writer who was quickly becoming a master. For the June 1940 issue Heinlein got the cover a second time with “The Roads Must Roll,” also hugely popular, also getting adapted for radio, and also, like If This Goes On—, depicting a future United States that seemed to have its own history—a future history, if you will. Heinlein’s ambition, especially with regards to worldbuilding and imagining future technological breakthroughs, was mesmerizing, and his takeover of Astounding was the swiftest the field had ever known. Within two years he had turned the field on its head with a series of short stories and novellas that were often both revolutionary and highly readable. The language of American science fiction was quickly becoming Heinlein’s language.

There was just one problem: Heinlein was only one person. At this highly prolific early stage in his career he had more material than he could publish in a single issue of Astounding, which after all was the highest paying of the SF magazines. There were a few alternatives. Heinlein made his fantasy debut in the September 1940 issue of Unknown with “The Devil Makes the Law,” later reprinted and better known as “Magic, Inc.” He also appeared a few times in Super Science Stories under the pseudonym Lyle Monroe, but that is not the pseudonym we’re here to talk about today. No, if Heinlein was to appear more often in Astounding (and by 1941 he needed to, so productive was he), another name would have to do the trick. Thus he came up with Anson MacDonald, combining his middle name with a last name that would appeal to Campbell’s sensibilities. Actually getting that extra work published in Astounding would be no issue; Campbell wanted to buy damn near everything Heinlein was selling.

The January 1941 issue thus saw the “debut” of Anson MacDonald with the serialization of Sixth Column, which in reality was Heinlein’s first novel. Based on an outline by Campbell, Sixth Column was a rare instance of Heinlein writing fiction on someone else’s orders, and the novel’s unfortunate Yellow Peril plot can only be partly blamed on him. Not that readers were immediately aware of the novel being a Heinlein work anyway, although the connection between Heinlein and MacDonald was not exactly a clever ruse. Still, the novel was evidently a hit with readers; all three installments ranked #1 in the Analytical Laboratory. “Heinlein” was absent for the January issue, but for February and March he appeared with stories of his own, in the forms of “—And He Built a Crooked House” (one of my personal favorites) and “Logic of Empire” respectively; incidentally both of those came in second to the MacDonald serial. There were a few more issues in 1941 which saw both Heinlein and MacDonald side by side, the two working in tandem and always (somehow) exploring different corners of SF.

(Cover by Hubert Rogers. Astounding, January 1941.)

1941 was about as major a year for Heinlein as it could be for any author, and indeed skimming through the contents of Astounding during this year it lays claim to marking the very apex of the Campbellian Golden Age. Despite having debuted only two years prior, Heinlein was undoubtedly the biggest talent in the field, puncutated by him being made Guest of Honor at the 1941 Worldcon (held in Denver that year), the last Worldcon before the US entered World War II; there would not be another one until 1946. 1941 was the year that saw Heinlein and MacDonald dominating Astounding, often in the same issue. On top of Sixth Column we also got our first novel-length serial under Heinlein’s own name with Methuselah’s Children, but more importantly we saw, from “both” authors, a string of short stories that were almost always home runs. From Heinlein you got “Universe” and its sequel “Common Sense,” and from MacDonald you got “Solution Unsatisfactory” and the classic time travel novella “By His Bootstraps.”

Unfortunately, nothing lasts forever, and the imaginary duo of Heinlein and MacDonald was soon was to come to an end—although, oddly, it was Heinlein who “left” first. As the US entered the war at the tail end of 1941 people of certain professions were needed, to help the war effort if not to see combat directly; thus in 1942 we saw Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and some other Astounding regulars step away from their typewriters and put their degrees to good use. Heinlein, along with Asimov and de Camp, went to work at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, but not before handing a few final gems before he went on hiatus. Strangely 1942 did not see Heinlein’s name at all, but we did get MacDonald flying solo (as it were), along with the one-off pseudonym John Riverside for the haunting fantasy-horror novella “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.” Heinlein (as MacDonald) made sure to go out with a bang, though.

First we have the serialization of Beyond This Horizon, which was also a hit with readers, and even later won the Retro Hugo for Best Novel. Beyond This Horizon is one of the weirdest pieces from Heinlein’s early period, and in some ways it anticipates the idiosyncrasies of later, longer, more (in)famous novels like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Because this is still early Heinlein, though, it’s a more concise and decidedly more left-leaning affair, albeit tempered with that militarism which in fact characterized Heinlein’s writing from the beginning. Then we have the novella “Waldo,” which also won a Retro Hugo, and whose influence outside the field is so palpable that we actually have technology which takes its name after the story: the waldo, a remote-controlled manipulator used for hazardous materials. Finally we have the borderline Lovecraftian story “Goldfish Bowl,” which sees Heinlein pit humanity against incomprehensible life forms which may or may not be alien in origin.

Sadly, by the end of 1942, Heinlein had left the field, and he would also take the MacDonald name with him. While Heinlein returned to the field stronger than ever in 1947, MacDonald did not.

Not unlike Richard Bachman, a persona which allowed Stephen King to publish works not strictly “on-brand” for him, MacDonald allowed Heinlein to really stretch his legs and further dominate Astounding. Authors have a plethora of reasons for concocting pseudonyms, but Heinlein had a straightforward reason for creating MacDonald and their “relationship” was quite a symbiotic one. If you were to pick up, say, the May 1941 issue of Astounding you could have Heinlein via “Universe” or MacDonald via “Solution Unsatisfactory,” two very different stories by the same man. The fact that Heinlein took the top two spots in that special Analytical Laboratory feature I mentioned at the beginning goes to show that his talents were enough to be spread across multiple names and still have all of them produce classic works. For a brief time he was not one but two of the most popular authors to appear in Astounding‘s pages.


2 responses to “The Observatory: The Pleasant Duality of Robert Heinlein and Anson MacDonald”

    • Weirdly there is at least one occasion (in Two Complete Science-Adventure Books) where it was reprinted under the MacDonald byline, despite a) the MacDonald name having been retired for years, and b) already having been reprinted under Heinlein’s name.


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