How Sci-Fi Writers Isaac Asimov & Robert Heinlein Contributed to the War Effort During World War II

Robert Hein­lein, Isaac Asi­mov and L. Sprague De Camp at the Navy Yard in 1944

Robert Hein­lein was born in 1907, which put him on the mature side by the time of the Unit­ed States’ entry into World War II. Isaac Asi­mov, his younger col­league in sci­ence fic­tion, was born in 1920 (or there­abouts), and thus of prime fight­ing age. But in the event, they made most of their con­tri­bu­tion to the war effort in the same place, the Naval Avi­a­tion Exper­i­men­tal Sta­tion in Philadel­phia. By 1942, Hein­lein had become the pre­em­i­nent sci-fi writer in Amer­i­ca, and the 22-year-old Asi­mov, a grad­u­ate stu­dent in chem­istry at Colum­bia, had already made a name for him­self in the field. It was Hein­lein, who’d signed on to run a mate­ri­als test­ing lab­o­ra­to­ry at the Yard, who brought Asi­mov into the mil­i­tary-research fold.

Hav­ing once been a Navy offi­cer, dis­charged due to tuber­cu­lo­sis, Hein­lein jumped at the chance to serve his coun­try once again. Dur­ing World War II, writes John Red­ford at A Niche in the Library of Babel, “his most direct con­tri­bu­tion was in dis­cus­sions of how to merge data from sonar, radar, and visu­al sight­ings with his friend Cal Lan­ing, who cap­tained a destroy­er in the Pacif­ic and was lat­er a rear admi­ral. Lan­ing used those ideas to good effect in the Bat­tle of Leyte Gulf in 1944, the largest naval bat­tle ever fought.” Asi­mov “was main­ly involved in test­ing mate­ri­als,” includ­ing those used to make “dye mark­ers for air­men downed at sea. These were tubes of flu­o­res­cent chem­i­cals that would form a big green patch on the water around the guy in his life jack­et. The patch could be seen by search­ing air­craft.”

Asi­mov schol­ars should note that a test of those dye mark­ers counts as one of just two occa­sions in his life that the aero­pho­bic writer ever dared to fly. That may well have been the most har­row­ing of either his or Hein­lein’s wartime expe­ri­ences, they were both involved in the suit­ably spec­u­la­tive “Kamikaze Group,” which was meant to work on “invis­i­bil­i­ty, death rays, force fields, weath­er con­trol” — or so Paul Mal­mont tells it in his nov­el The Astound­ing, the Amaz­ing, and the Unknown. You can read a less height­ened account of Hein­lein and Asi­mov’s war in Astound­ing, Alec Nevala-Lee’s his­to­ry of Amer­i­can sci­ence fic­tion.

Their time togeth­er in Philade­phia was­n’t long. “As the war end­ed, Asi­mov was draft­ed into the Army, where he spent nine months before he was able to leave, where he returned to his stud­ies and writ­ing,” accord­ing to Andrew Lip­tak at Kirkus Reviews. “Hein­lein con­tem­plat­ed return­ing to writ­ing full time, as a viable career, rather than as a side exer­cise.” When he left the Naval Avi­a­tion Exper­i­men­tal Sta­tion, “he resumed writ­ing and work­ing on plac­ing sto­ries in mag­a­zines.” In the decades there­after, Hein­lein’s work took on an increas­ing­ly mil­i­taris­tic sen­si­bil­i­ty, and Asi­mov’s became more and more con­cerned with the enter­prise of human civ­i­liza­tion broad­ly speak­ing. But pin­ning down the influ­ence of their war on their work is an exer­cise best left to the sci-fi schol­ars.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Sci-Fi Icon Robert Hein­lein Lists 5 Essen­tial Rules for Mak­ing a Liv­ing as a Writer

Isaac Asi­mov Recalls the Gold­en Age of Sci­ence Fic­tion (1937–1950)

Sci-Fi Writer Robert Hein­lein Imag­ines the Year 2000 in 1949, and Gets it Most­ly Wrong

X Minus One: Hear Clas­sic Sci-Fi Radio Sto­ries from Asi­mov, Hein­lein, Brad­bury & Dick

The Ency­clo­pe­dia of Sci­ence Fic­tion: 17,500 Entries on All Things Sci-Fi Are Now Free Online

Read Hun­dreds of Free Sci-Fi Sto­ries from Asi­mov, Love­craft, Brad­bury, Dick, Clarke & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities and the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Jay L says:

    It’s a shame you left out de Camp.

  • Harvey Laursen says:

    Asi­mov’s was my favorite author. Real­ly liked his sense of humor. He wrote sci­ence as well as sci­ence fic­tion!

  • Randy says:

    Nice ‘stache, Lieu­tenant! ;^ /

  • Terry Green says:

    Hein­lein has been my favorite author for about 60 years. He led me to Asi­mov, Farmer,Anderson, and on and on. He turns me from see­ing read­ing as a chore to I can’t get enough.A lot of what I am today comes from read­ing these authors. I thank them for their dreams.

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