The centennial of Robert Heinlein’s birth is coming up in July, and tempers are still worked up over this pulp fiction writer who turned into a consciousness-raising guru during the 1960s. Only a few weeks ago, a writer in the New York Times Book Review attacked Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as “an endorsement of fascism.” Heinlein’s defenders rushed in with letters to the editor to counter these charges, and a mini-controversy was soon brewing over a book for youngsters first published in 1959, by an author who died in 1988.
But Heinlein fans should be used to these deprecations. Over the years their favorite writer has been accused of many things – of being a libertine or a libertarian, a fascist or a fetishist, pre-Oedipal or just plain preposterous. Heinlein’s critics cut across all ends of the political spectrum, as do his fans. His admirers have ranged from Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists, to members of the Church of All Worlds, who hail Heinlein as a prophet. Apparently both true believers and non-believers, and perhaps some agnostics, have found sustenance in Heinlein’s prodigious output, some 50 books which have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
For my part, I can accept the militarism of Starship Troopers. (After all, the soldiers are fighting giant bugs from outer space who brutally slimed Buenos Aires. Do you want to stick up for them?) But Heinlein can shake me up, too. I draw the line when his protagonists have affairs with their own clones, or go back in time to court their mom under the watchful eye of grandpa. Of course, Heinlein’s knack for offending sensibilities is one of his calling cards. His zeal for controversy not only set him apart from the other sci-fi masters of his era — who worried about robots and laser beams while Heinlein’s characters are tearing off their clothes — and also keeps us arguing about his books long after his passing.
The debates about Starship Troopers were mild compared to the discussions generated by Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, published two years later. Heinlein had begun taking notes for his novel about an earthling raised on Mars back in 1953, and what might have been a modest pot-boiler during the Eisenhower years became a cult classic during the 1960s. (A copy is probably sitting in a box in your garage right now, in between Siddhartha and The Teachings of Don Juan.)