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Book Review: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume One: Learning Curve by William H. Patterson, Jr.

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Better late than never. Robert A. Heinlein, the “dean of science fiction,” eldest (and some say greatest) of the “big three,” finally has his authorized biography – the first half of it, at least. Volume One: Learning Curve, covers approximately the first 40 years of his life, covering his childhood, Navy service, political career, first forays into the writing world, his service during WWII, and then his return to writing, for good this time. As the volume ends, he is just beginning to pick up momentum, and there seems a promise of great things to come.

It’s about time, certainly. Heinlein passed away more than two decades ago, a few years before Asimov (and we only lost Clarke in 2008). However, Asimov wrote no less than three autobiographies while Clarke’s (first) authorized biography was published in his lifetime. Yet Robert Anson Heinlein is the one that I have so many questions about. I can’t think of a writer, speculative or otherwise, who seems so fascinatingly contradictory as this man. This is the same author who wrote Starship Troopers, a juvenile that’s been read by some as an endorsement of military fascism; the 1960s free-love, anti-war favourite, Stranger in a Strange Land; and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, an apparently argument for libertarian revolution (though it sure beats Atlas Shrugged for readability).

Left, right, or some entirely new direction in the political spectrum; the only conclusion one can draw from a thorough reading of his fiction is that Heinlein is not a man who easily fits into a box. All of these books I’ve mentioned were written in the latter half of his life, and thus, will have to wait for Volume Two to shed some more insight on what he had in mind with their writing. However, the impression I’ve gotten of the man behind the books so far is that of a truly free-thinking individual. An intellectual who is never content to take the party line on anything, but must come to his own conclusions by carefully weighing all available data.

Although I’ve not yet had all my questions about the SF Grandmaster answered, I feel I have a much better sense of the man behind the novels than I did previously. But this biography also held surprises for me. I didn’t realize, for example, what a fascinating life Heinlein had led before he ever did the writerly work that would make him famous. As is often the case in reading a biography of a famous personage, one tends to start out with a sense that the subject’s famous works are somewhat inevitable, only to be surprised upon reading by the caprices of fate, the random acts that led to history. What if Heinlein’s tuberculosis had not forced him to retire from the Navy? What if the political campaigns Heinlein involved himself with in California had gone just a little bit differently, a little more successfully?

Indeed, Heinlein’s life might have been very different, but the entire history of the United States from that point forward might well have been very different as well. Heinlein was a man of action, putting everything he had into everything he would do. He gravitated to important causes, and he contributed to them in any way he could, often significantly. In this case, with hindsight, it seems to me that there was an inevitability to Heinlein’s life after all. Not to be a major force in the science fiction world, necessarily, but to be a major force, somewhere. The question was simply where he might have his impact.

Patterson paints a vivid picture as he takes us through the not inconsiderable events of Heinlein’s life. He frequently lets each personality speak for themselves, drawing on voluminous correspondence, taped interviews, later reminiscences, not to mention all kinds of government documentation. As the biographer authorized by Heinlein’s widow, Virginia, he had unprecedented access to Robert’s estate, but the sheer magnitude of such an undertaking is mind-boggling. The vast number of additional research sources he cites in the text suggests he left no stone unturned in putting together an accurate, complete picture of the life of this quintessential SF author.

This is a page-turner, certainly for any fan of Heinlein or SF in general, but perhaps also for anyone interested in the period of American history covered. I was gleeful when the well-established Heinlein of a still young pulp industry makes his mention of some wannabe young writer named Isaac Asimov (whose writing is mostly terrible), but equally enthralled at stories not involving such seminal genre figures, like a navy captain on one of the first aircraft carriers who Heinlein relates bringing every pilot home safe from a war exercise (in one case a plane literally sputtering out of gas as it made contact), but only by ignoring an order from a superior and effectively ending his own career. We see a little of an early L. Ron Hubbard, an interesting character in his own right, but we also see Heinlein pounding the pavement, campaigning, in the Depression-era California immortalized in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, trying to use the machinery of democracy to fix it.

It’s an interesting life, no doubt about it, and a life well told in Patterson’s first volume. This very necessary and much anticipated work has been, it turns out, worth the wait. I look well forward to Volume Two. I’m really curious as to what happens next.

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About J.J.S. Boyce

  • Brad

    Well written commentary. I look forward to reading about my first and favorite author again.

  • John Lake

    I’ve wondered about Heinlein’s life. Some of his earliest pieces, …there was one about papers and things whirling in a vortex.. show a brilliant young man who has taken control of a difficult sphere. “The Roads Must Roll” was a departure from anything that had gone before. Asimov borrowed. “I, Robot” (only the title). That was usurped from an much lessor known writer. Bradbury got some ideas from none other than Tennessee Whilliams’ short stories. I discovered that myself; it may have been the other way around.
    Lazarus Long was a character that formed the basis of all early SF, and Heinlein’s “Stranger..” was the masters more public masterwork.
    I may read the reviewed biography. I’ve got so much to read already.

  • John Lake

    Regarding my comment 2, above:
    It seems I must concede some apologies. Firstly I made some mess with Tennessee Williams name. For this I am contrite. More importantly, the accusations I made toward Williams, or Bradbury, one or the other, turn out not to be true. I made some effort to document my case for a borrowed work, and came up wanting. What must have happened, I read Bradbury’s 1954 (or so) piece, Sun and Shadow , thinking I was reading a Williams story. The short story is unrelated to science fiction, and displays an understanding of the short story genre uncommon. It paints a picture in words which still arouses emotion, and general genre warmth. So, it was Bradbury that wrote it, not Williams. But it had a very Williams feel. Anyway, if anyone can find it, they should read it, and I apologize for the gross assumption.

  • http://cinemasentries.com/ El Bicho

    Good review and the book sounds very interesting.