The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1959)
Spine Front Cover Book Details
Robert A. Heinlein
Publication Date 1997
Format Leather-bound (225 x 155 mm)
Publisher The Easton Press
Genre Fantasy
Product Details
Series Masterpieces of Fantasy
No. of Pages 256
Paper Type Acid-neutral paper
First Edition No
Personal Details
URL This book on
Rating 9
No. of Reviews 9
Frontispiece/Illustrator Walter Velez
Original Details
Original Publisher Spectrum Literary Agency
Original Publication Year 1959
Robert A. Heinlein, the celebrated author of Stranger in a Strange Land, interrupts the lives of two ordinary people for a terrifying night-ride alo ng the interface between reality and . . . our world. "One of the grand masters of science fiction."--Wall Street Journal.

That is what the late John W. Campbell, Jr., told himself in 1938, not long after he had become editor of Astounding Stories. He would change the name of the eight-year-old magazine to Astounding Science Fiction and would transform science fiction, through his own editorial influence and the judicious application of the economic power of his publisher, Street & Smith, into what later would become known as "the Golden Age." But what about fantasy?

Fantasy, of course, was the older form of imaginative fiction, dating back to the beginnings of storytelling itself, with narratives like "Gilgamesh" and "The Odyssey." But with the arrival of the Indus trial Revolution and the Age of Science, science fiction had become the more popular form of fiction, taking as its initial premise some significant departure from everyday reality. Of course, a good number of fantasy novels and stories remained popular: the works of Lord Dunsany, for instance, or such children's classics as Water Babies or Peter Pan, the romantic comedies of Thorne Smith, the planetary fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the immensely popular romantic fantasies of A. Merritt, and the other science fantasies of the Munsey pulp magazines, a number of which would be reprinted, beginning in 1939, in Famous Fantastic Mysteries. But by 1938 no one had been able to create a successful fantasy magazine. In fact, the publishing wisdom of the time was that fantasy simply didn't sell.

Street & Smith experimented with The Thrill Book in 1919, and Weird Tales had been offering a broad mixture of science fiction, fan tasy, and horror since 1923. But Weird Tales paid its authors poorly and irregularly and, although it had its faithful readers and survived from month to month and year to year, it never seemed to thrive.

Campbell imagined a different kind of fantasy magazine, one that would combine science fiction's plausibility with fantasy's freedom, and convinced his publisher that he should be allowed to create a companion magazine to Astounding. It would be called Unknown, and it would publish what might be called "rationalized fantasy." Brian Stableford and Peter Nicholls in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction comment that "fantasy is sf-like when it adopts a cognitive approach to its subject matter, even if that matter is magic." They go on to say that "supernatural fantasy approaches the condition of science fiction when its narrative voice implies a post-scientific consciousness" and science fiction "approaches the condition of fantasy when its narrative voice implies a mystical or even anti-scientific consciousness." This suggests that what Campbell determined to publish in Unknown was fantasy written as if it were science fiction.

Campbell announced the new magazine in the February 1939 issue of Astounding:

It has been the quality of the fantasy you have read in the past that has made the very word anathema... Unknown will be to fantasy what Astounding has made itself represent to science fiction. It will offer fantasy of a quality so different from that which has appeared in the past as to change your entire understanding of the term.

The new magazine attracted some of the same writers who were contributing to the young editor's science-fiction magazine: British writer Eric Frank Russell (whose Sinister Barrier was credited by Campbell as "starting in motion the already-laid plans" for Unknown), L. Sprague de Camp, L. Ron Hubbard, Theodore Sturgeon, H. L. Gold, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, Jack Williamson, and Robert A. Heinlein.

The magazine was an instant critical success and published a number of classic stories and novels, most of which have been reprinted in book form. The late Thomas D. Clareson in Marshall Tymn and Mike Ashley's Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Weird Fiction Magazines, credited Unknown with having "a major impact on the development of the fantasy genre, and, perhaps more so, on the broader field of science fiction."

Unfortunately, it lasted for only 39 issues. It changed its name to Unknown Worlds in 1941, and in 1943 it ceased publication, killed by the wartime paper shortage, although its sales had never been substantial, certainly not as substantial as those of Astounding, for whose monthly publication Unknown Worlds may have been sacrificed. Its demise is still lamented.

Robert A. Heinlein was just starting his science-fiction career when the first issue of Unknown appeared in March 1939. His first story, "Lifeline," would be published in the July 1939 Astounding. By September of the following year he had published in Unknown a novella called "The Devil Makes the Law," which he would later reprint as "Magic, Inc." In May of 1941 Heinlein contributed the classic paranoia story "They," and in October of 1942 the novella "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag." This one he would publish under the pseudonym of John Riverside. The only other out-and-out fantasy he wrote was the 1963 novel Glory Road.

Born in 1908 in Butler, Missouri, Heinlein graduated from the Naval Academy in 1929 and retired because of physical disability in 1934. After trying various other occupations, including silver mining, he turned to his old love, science fiction, and discovered the mother lode. He became an instant favorite of science fiction readers and led the field, like SF's own Moses, into one promised land after another: his narrative innovations made it possible to write more sophisticated and more effective SF; he broke the SF barrier in the slick magazines; he initiated a tradition of SF juveniles with his series for Scribner's; he wrote and advised on SF films; and finally he made a breakthrough onto the bestseller lists with Stranger in a Strange Land. He became one of the first full-time science fiction writers and the first of its millionaires, and for all of these reasons and more he was named the first Grand Master of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He has been called "the most influential science fiction writer of all time." Since his death in 1988, his work, which created an SF film renaissance with Destination Moon (1950), has been translated into such films as Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers, with perhaps more to come.

If Heinlein's first love was science fiction, his fantasies all became classics of their kind, and the collection brought together as The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag has been called, by George Zebrowski, "one of the great collections of short fiction by an American writer in contemporary times." Published originally in 1959 in hard cover by Gnome Press, it has often been reprinted in paperback. It includes not only the title story but "They" and "All You Zombies" (an SF time-travel story published originally in Fantasy and Science Fiction), as well as "The Man Who Traveled in Elephants" (published as "The Elephant Circuit" in a short-lived magazine called Saturn Science Fiction and Fantasy), "Our Fair City" (published, ironically, in Weird Tales, possibly because Unknown Worlds had died and there was no other market), and "And He Built a Crooked House," which was one of Heinlein's 1940 Astounding stories.

The glue that binds these stories together is their difference. They are all unique specimens of their kind: nothing quite like "And He Built a Crooked House," appeared in Astounding before or has appeared since. "All You Zombies" is the classic time-travel story, involving all of its paradoxes. Even the two stories from Unknown were special for that magazine. Perhaps most special. They involve the two basic themes that obsessed Heinlein throughout his writing career: paranoia and solipsism. Solipsism also is the basic question of "All You Zombies."

Solipsism, which is the philosophy that the only thing that any one can be certain of is the self, is closely allied to paranoia. Solipsism, however, is what drives "All You Zombies" into its intricacies of relationships, and paranoia is what imbues "They" and "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" with their particular frissons that vast forces may be aligned against their protagonists and the apprehension that even worse revelations may lie ahead. What is Jonathan Hoag to make, for instance, of the discovery that what has been found under his fingernails is not blood, as he suspected, but something so much worse that the doctor tears up the analysis and asks him to take his business elsewhere? And that is only the first of a series of developments that lead to a shattering revelation.

The novel that launched Unknown, Russell's Sinister Barrier, was based on the notion, suggested by that connoisseur of the outrageous occurrence, Charles Fort, that people are property, owned by mysterious and powerful aliens who collect some of them from time to time. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag takes that concept to its ultimate conclusion. It represents the best of what Unknown had to offer, the matter-of-fact irreverence of the paranormal that finally reveals vast forces manipulating the universe. It is a great deal of fun, and behind that fun lies some unsettling truths about the human condition.

James Gunn
Lawrence, Kansas
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag Start Page: 7
The Man Who Travelled in Elephants Start Page: 149
"All You Zombies" Start Page: 168
They Start Page: 185
Our Fair City Start Page: 205
"And He Built a Crooked House" Start Page: 230