Everywhere a Wilderness

Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein — Robert A. Heinlein

Off The Main Sequence

Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein was edited by Andrew Wheeler, then of the Science Fiction Book Club. It delivers exactly what it says on the tin.

This book has been out of print since its first and only printing in 2005 [1]. It seems to be surprising available as a used book (which I would not have expected) but I was spared the immense difficulty of ordering and waiting for a copy, as I already owned an early cut of the book, thanks to my then job at the Science Fiction Book Club.

I was given an early version of this book, which means none of the following

Introduction (Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein) • essay by Greg Bear

Foreword (Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein) • essay by Michael Cassutt

Editor’s Note (Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein) • essay by Andrew Wheeler

are in my copy. As I recall, the intention was that this collection would include all of Heinlein’s non-Future history science fiction stories. There is one ringer in the collection, of which anon.

“Successful Operation” • (1940) • short story

A Hitler-style dictator has his life saved — temporarily.


A standard tomato surprise ending that readers will see coming. Very Twilight Zone.

“Let There Be Light” • [Future History] • (1940) • short story

Two inventors are forced by political corruption to re-invent the American power industry.


While this is from the Future History, it was left out of the Past Through Tomorrow because it’s a very minor piece.

“ — And He Built a Crooked House — “ • (1959) • short story

An innovative house design lands the architect and his two clients in the fourth dimension.


A mildly amusing tale of architectural misadventure.

“Beyond Doubt” • (1941) • short story (with Elma Wentz)

The true origin of the stone heads on Easter Island.


To call this minor is to insult all the stories that managed to be authentically minor. This appears to be Wentz’s only published story.

“They” • (1941) • short story

A paranoid’s fantasy turns out to be true.


This is interesting as an example of the “reality behind the backdrop” fantasy genre that enjoyed popularity in the 1940s and then again fifty years later.

Solution Unsatisfactory • (1941) • novelette

America’s deployment of bulk radioisotopes ends World War Two at the cost of laying the foundation for a far more destructive World War Three (should other nations duplicate America’s achievement). Which they soon do, since the Americans gave away the most crucial secret when they revealed that it could be done in the first place. All possible coping mechanisms for the new weapon are, as the title suggests, unsatisfactory.


Heinlein gets the details of atomic weapons wrong, but is unusually prescient for the time in other respects. As we all know, humanity successfully resisted the urge to limit nuclear proliferation, which I think would have surprised the 1941 Heinlein.

Universe • (1941) • novelette

A young man discovers that his universe is actually a generation ship!

My very first Heinlein! As I have mentioned, my older brother recited this from memory when we were trapped in Brazil with no books in English. The story has not aged well in a number of respects, but deserves credit for establishing the amnesiac generation ship genre.

Elsewhen • (1941) • novelette

A professor and his students research the nature of time, landing them in pan-dimensional adventures.


I kept waiting for the story to jell and it never did.

Common Sense • (1941) • novella

In this follow-up to “Universe,” our plucky hero takes part in a plan to show his crewmates the truth, only to find that he has been a pawn in another man’s political scheme. Will he, his closest friend and their harem of enslaved women manage to escape the consequences?


This really has not aged well. It may be the most casually misogynistic story that Heinlein ever penned. Which is saying something.

By His Bootstraps • (1941) • novella

A young American finds himself caught up in a tangle of causality when he steps through a time gate.


One of the rules pertaining to Heinlein’s fiction is “the protagonists of his time-travel stories are generally self-centred dicks.” This would be a fine example: the lead sets himself up as dictator and revels in a plethora of submissive women.

Lost Legacy • (1941) • novella

Young Americans discover that all humans can wield psychic powers; that they do not is due to a conspiracy.


This would be a fine place to go off on a tangent about Heinlein’s connection to the wackaloon occult community of the 1940s.

“My Object All Sublime” • (1942) • short story

An invisible man punishes bad drivers.


Are there stories so wretched even Heinlein could grasp that they were terrible? Yes Virginia, there are such stories, and this is one of them. It went uncollected for decades … for good reason.

Goldfish Bowl • (1942) • novelette

Research into mysterious phenomena brings two unlucky men into contact with a superior lifeform. Superior but not benevolent.


Reminiscent of early Eric Frank Russell Fortean pieces.

“Pied Piper” • (1942) • short story

A war ends, thanks to teleportation, mind control, and child hostages.


When this was written, people were shooting, gassing and exploding children to win a war, so these tactics would be better? Maybe?

Free Men • (1966) • novelette

Ragtag guerillas hold out against the totalitarian hordes that have invaded an unprepared America.



“On the Slopes of Vesuvius” • (1980) • short story

Worried by talk of WWIII, a man flees New York City just in time to avoid being killed when it is nuked.


Heinlein in save-the-world mode. This story first saw print in Expanded Universe. Doubtless it had previously aged in a drawer as unpublishable.

“Columbus Was a Dope” • (1947) • short story

A man living on the Moon scoffs at the idea of interstellar exploration.

Jerry Was a Man • (1947) • novelette

A genetically engineered chimp is legally declared a human.


How odd to see an SF story in favour of an expanded franchise. It’s an uplift story that worries about the ethical implications of uplift. Best not to think too much about what political causes Heinlein might have thought he was helping with this talking ape story.

SF sure loves court scenes. Earl Stanley Gardner could have made a killing writing SF.

“Water Is for Washing” • (1947) • short story

A man who is drowning-phobic finds himself dealing with a flood of biblical proportions.

Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon • (1949) • novelette

A tenderfoot scout on the Moon proves himself after a mishap threatens his life and that of his friend.

Gulf • (1949) • novella

A government agent discovers that he is a superhuman.


It just wouldn’t be a Heinlein collection without a few rants about how Democracy Just Can’t Work. Comes with added eugenics. Some details were reused for the backstory of Friday.

Destination Moon • (1950) • novelette

A small team of men overcome difficulties to claim the Moon for America. Can’t let the Commies claim it first.

The Year of the Jackpot • (1952) • novelette

A likeable couple’s romance is complicated by the end of the world.


This is the story in which I discovered there were jurisdictions where it was illegal for women to dress like men.

Project Nightmare • (1953) • novelette

A team of psychics protects American from the Red Apocalypse!


This is jam-packed with ‘50s goodness: psi powers, Commies, and atomic menace!

“Sky Lift” • (1953) • short story

A rocket jockey gets vitally needed medical supplies to Pluto at a terrible cost to himself.

A Tenderfoot in Space • (1958) • novelette

Tenderfoot in Space: A tenderfoot scout on Venus manages to keep himself and a friend alive, with the help of his plucky dog, Nixie.

“ — All You Zombies — ” • (1959) • short story

A time traveller reveals his curious personal history.


[video tom lehrer Oedipus rex]

See previous comments about Heinlein and time travel. Still, I prefer the protagonist in this story to the fellow from “By His Bootstraps.” Um, and Hugh Farnham too.

General comments

Wheeler set out to deliver a comprehensive collection; the unfortunate consequence is that there are a number of pieces that prove that not everything authors publish should remain in print. Still, if this book had been available when I was fourteen, no doubt I would have read it to pieces just as I did The Past Through Tomorrow.

Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein seems to be very, very out of print.

1: As far as I can tell, the SFBC does not at present offer this or any other Heinlein book.


  • Tim

    I guess he classified "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" as not science fiction ... which is an arguable point, mind you, but I think it's not not clearly SF, and it felt rather SFnal to me.

  • Joseph Major

    "Beyond Doubt" -- Elma Wentz was a friend who worked on the EPIC campaign. Heinlein made up a plot for story, she wrote the first draft, and he finished it.

    "Free Men" -- Heinlein actually submitted this to Harlan Ellison for Dangerous Visions (!).

    "Water Is for Washing" -- The version here leaves out the original ending, which had a "repentant thief" reference.

    "Destination Moon" -- This was done in parallel with the movie

  • James Nicoll

    Really? Dangerous Visions?

  • Joseph Major

    Oops, wrong story. It was "No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying", about the pneumothorax, that he submitted.

    Harlan Ellison prompted him again in May: It was “utterly necessary,” he assured Heinlein, that the Dangerous Visions anthology have a Heinlein story—but his end-of-May deadline was approaching. Heinlein had really not had time to think about writing at all in the last eight months. But he did have one story in his files that might fit Ellison’s criteria of “rejected-for-being-too-unconventional,” and he had pulled the file copy of “Three Brave Men” to bring along on the trip. This was a story he had written in 1946, from the anecdote his brother had told him when he came to Fitzsimmons Army and Navy hospital in 1933, about TB patients dying on the table of artificial pneumothorax. He revised and retitled it “No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying", and got it off to Ellison before the submission deadline. But that story found another stool to fall between: Ellison had been looking for a “shocker.” This story could be considered science fiction only by the most liberal possible interpretation of genre boundaries—but it just didn’t fit in at all with the confrontational stories Ellison had been assembling, stories rejected by conventional markets precisely because they were too much in tune with the new style of political and cultural discourse that was just coming into being. Rejecting a Heinlein story, Ellison told Heinlein, made him a certifiable lunatic17—but it just wasn’t right for this project. He returned it. The architect was being difficult.

    Patterson Jr., William H.. Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: 1948-1988 The Man Who Learned Better:

  • Pamela Adams

    What- they didn't include the sentient dust devil?

  • DemetriosX

    Isn't there a throwaway line somewhere (I want to say in "Methuselah's Children", but it could be very late retcon) that suggests "Universe" is part of the Future History? It just doesn't interact with any of the other moving parts.

  • Goljerp

    DemetriosX: I think it's in Time Enough for Love, where LL expounds upon how everyone ended up dying in the end, or something else taking away whatever happy ending might have existed.

  • Vincent Manis

    I haven't read `And He Built A Crooked House' in decades, but two lines glow in my memory.

    Architect: What's Frank Lloyd Wright got that I haven't got? Customer: Commissions?

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