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Robert Heinlein at One Hundred

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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.)

Heinlein’s breakthrough came by ignoring many of the rules that had guided his early successes. He had often been praised as a master of “hard” sci-fi — heavy on the technology, in other words — drawing on the author’s extensive readings in various scientific disciplines. But from now on, Heinlein would show far greater interest in the human sciences, in the anthropological and cultural ramifications of his tales. In the place of the tightly plotted narratives that had come to define the sci-fi genre, Heinlein now felt free to offer rambling discursions, large doses of social commentary that tended to overwhelm the storytelling.

Readers had previously enjoyed a glimpse of Heinlein’s intensity and ardent individualism, but now it erupted into a supernova of libertarian zeal. In 1961, when Stranger in a Strange Land was published, the author’s anti-authoritarian sentiments might have seemed like a personal quirk. But with the tremendous expansion in various counter-culture movements during the remainer of the decade, Heinlein’s hero Michael Valentine Smith now sounded like a spokesperson for the new generation. With his quasi-mystical language, his rejection of political authorities and his zeal for free love, this missionary from Mars would have been quite at home on the Berkeley or Columbia campuses, perhaps making out on the lawn, getting high, or taking over an administration building. (Indeed, one of the first serious studies of Heinlein was written by H. Bruce Franklin, who had been fired from his tenured position at Stanford for leading students in their occupation of the computer center.)

From this point on, Heinlein’s books were mostly short on plot and long on philosophy. The actual story of Glory Road from 1963 is tidied up a little over halfway through the book – the remaining pages are mostly a primer on political and social institutions. Heinlein’s longest book, Time Enough for Love, has no apparent structure, merely presenting a string of situations that allow for rambling discussions of everything from the money supply to genetics. Farnham’s Freehold is a survivalist’s manual dressed up in a story about time travel.

But though these stories might be bloated, they were never boring. Heinlein might outrage or shock or dazzle, yet these loose and louche narratives never lost their energy. And Heinlein was always quotable, even if in a corny Mickey Spillane manner. It was Heinlein, after all, who first announced “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch” – and truer words have never been spoken. Reading his later works is like sitting at the bar next to a motor-mouth zealot who has an quirky opinion on everything, an angle, a take on all topics. Even better than talk radio! And when Heinlein could hold it all together, as he did with 1966's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — which includes all his favorite Ayn Rand rants, but also a solid plot, strong characters and top-notch dialogue — he was capable of crafting a masterpiece of the genre.

Almost twenty years after his passing, Heinlein has not lost his audience. A three-day centennial celebration is planned for July in Kansas City, and participants will include Buzz Aldrin, Arthur C. Clarke, NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, and a host of other fans and admirers who still respond to the Heinlein magic. William Patterson is working on a massive biography. And a campaign is underway to convince the Navy to name DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer USS Robert A. Heinlein.

A destroyer named after Heinlein? Even his critics might agree to that honor.

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About Ted Gioia

  • CCA

    La lectura de las 100 vidas de Lazarus Long y de Tiempo para amara, allá por los 70, cuando yo tenía entre 18 y 20 años, fue uno de los placeres que me deparó el descubrir la Ciencia Ficción y a este autor en particular. ¿Fascista? no lo creo.
    Un saludo

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net , which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States, and to Boston.com. Nice work!

  • http://eclecticlibrarian.net/ Anna Creech

    The first and only Heinlein book I’ve read is Friday, and the misogyny was enough to turn me off of reading anything else he’s written. I have some friends who think he’s a great writer and have tried to get me to read one of his better books, but life is too short to read that kind of tripe.

  • http://djomama.blogspot.com jomama

    Cut my teeth on his books. Masterful storyteller and yarn spinner with
    a robust sense of life. To me, he kind of lost it toward the end of
    his writing career but he was allowed.

  • Stacy Brian Bartley

    Respectfully there are few authors that have shown women of power and women empowering themselves as well as Robert A. Heinlein. Heinlein excelled in portraying strong capable and idealistic women.

    regards
    Stacy Brian Bartley

  • http://www.sff.net/people/paullevinson Paul Levinson

    I’d go for The Door Into Summer. Along with Asimov’s The End of Eternity, it’s the best time-travel ever written, and, in a general sense, inspired my The Plot to Save Socrates

  • Andy Welch

    To Anna Creech, reading a book BY an author is not the same as reading or knowing ABOUT the author. Go on, give it another go. Try Job or Stranger in a Strange Land. Truly visionary.

  • http:www.meathmedia.com/blog/musings/ Jonathan Meath

    Nice to see kinds words and thoughtful comments about an author who inspired me as a youth. One of the many, I suspect, transformed by the concepts presented in “Stranger in a Strange Land.” I am still trying to “grok” our world.

    lol,

    JGM

  • stamatis

    Amazing writer! I’ve read all his books. I did not always agree with his positions, but his books have stayed with me for years and years

  • E.Gordon Howe

    A few random thoughts about one of the best authors out there.

    As a child I did not read. When confronted by this fact in school, I went to the school library and was directed to look for the symbol of a little spaceship surrounded by whirling electrons on the spine of books. The Librarian assured me that I would like these books. I picked up “The Runnaway Robot” by Del Rey and “The Red Planet” by Heinlein.

    I was hooked!

    Within a half a year, I had read all the SF books in the children’s section of my public library. At the age of tweleve I convinced the Library that I needed an Adult Card in order to continue my passion of reading. The first “adult” book I read was “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Heinlein.

    When I met my wife, I told her of my passion for SF and urged her to try some. The book I gave her as a representative of the genre, “The Door Into Summer” by Heinlein. She loved it. We now have over 5 copies of “Time Enough For Love” by Heinlein in the house because she hates to go digging through our books when she wants to reread it.

    I’ve been in the Navy for over thirty years and my passion hasn’t diminished. So if you’re looking for a volunteer… I’d gladly serve on the USS Robert A. Heinlein.

    After all… this man came up with the most convincing (IMHO) reason to fund space travel when he said, “The Earth is too small and fragile a basket for humanity to hold all its eggs in.”

  • badfrog

    RAH had a “brain event” in the late 60’s and his writing was never as tight after that. It was still pretty good, though.

    I always felt Friday was a pro-feminist manifesto, but the character deprecated the groupthink mentality of the 70’s feminist organisations sfter the radical leftists pushed out the non-political members using bolshevek tactics. My then wife, who btw was a charter member of WITCH (Womens International Terrorist Conspiracy from HEll) and was a front line participant in several early femininst demonstrations/riots, also quit the groups when the leftist politicos took over (she was a police officer, and from a small town in Kansas). Heinlein ALWAYS hated groupthink, it’s probably the most salient feature of his entire career.

    I always urge everybody to read Heinlein, its a free and enjoyable lesson in critical thinking. If you can’t look beyond the theories he puts in the mouths of his characters, you’re missing the point.

  • Dawnrazor

    From the article:

    “Farnham’s Freehold is a survivalist’s manual dressed up in a story about time travel. ”

    It’s also an incredibly racist book and the one that turned me off of his writing. He was a talnted writer, but his biases and issues ruined a lot of his work.

  • Eric Deanda

    I am a recent fan of RAH and i can safely say that he is my favorite other. So far though i hae only read Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land and both amazed me.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx jaz

    /sigh

    from the Article – it’s Valentine Michael Smith, not Michael Valentine

    and for those who cannot tell the differences between what an Author writes in a fiction piece, and his/her own personal opinions, allow me to demonstrate…

    in ’61 both Stranger and Starship Troopers hit the market…

    some thought Stranger was heretical, and that the author was some kind of crazed beatnik peace lover…others thought that Starship Troopers was the work of some kind of fascist militant

    both were written by the same man…an Annapolis graduate, who loved his Nation his entire life

    goes to show that most of R.A.H.’s critics have never actually read his work…

    even less appear to have Understood it

    as Spider Robinson said in the title of his remarkable essay which debunks completely all the bullshit from the detractors and those who just don’t understand…

    Rah…rah….R.A.H.!

    nuff said

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=gonzo%20marx jaz

    ooops…almost forgot…

    Door into Summer is NOT the greatest time travel story ever..

    R.A.H. wrote a short that wins them all, called “All you Zombies…”

    where else does a person not only become both of his own parents, but recruits himself into the Time Corps to make it all possible in the first place?

    “a Paradox can be paradoctored” – R.A.H.

  • Jim Perry

    I grew up with Heinlein, first reading some of his serialized work in Boys Life in the 50s. Does anyone remember that it was he and Arthur C. Clarke who were invited by Cronkite to comment on the first moon landing. After Clarke said some appropriately “historic event” things, Heinlein went into a rant about why no women were in the astronaut program. He was almost immediately cut off.

    It’s one my favorite memories of the early space program, and it’s also classic Heinlein. In his own way, he was an early feminist.

  • Mark Crook

    Good article. I never saw Star Ship Troopers as fascist, I saw it as a society doing what it must to survive. When peace is possible, we don’t need, or want soldiers, but when peace is impossible, we raise our children to be warriors and give them everything we can to help them prevail.

  • http://praxis22.livejournal.com praxis22

    I’ve always loved Heinlein, I discovered him in my teens, “have spacesuit will travel” and kept on reading him ’till he died.

    My favourite is probably Job, though “stranger”, glory road, and time enough for love, are classics. I got into Rodin because of “stranger”

    That said, I also didn’t get into a small further education college, because when asked who my favourite author was I said Heinlein, my interviewer, a rather staid old woman, then asked me if I didn’t think he was a little right wing in his politics… It went downhill from there :)

  • http://www.lneilsmith.org L. Neil Smith

    “Farnham’s Freehold” is a “racist” novel only if you don’t read it. What Heinlein demonstrates in that little book is that if any group gets the upper hand, they’ll abuse the power of their position. Elsewhere, he warned that slavery can sneak into a society in many different and insidious forms, and FF shows that pretty well, too.

    …I once had to sit for an hour and listen to a fairly well-known writer attack Heinlein for the racism he claimed to have found in Starship Troopers. Apparently they guy managed to miss the fact that the character narrating the story is not white.

    …As one of the “Children of Heinlein”, I’ll celebrate the life of this great man this year by writing another book of my own, and urging more people to read him. My favorite Heinlein books are “Door into Summer” and his powerfully antiracist “Double Star”.

  • Mark Peters

    Y’all forgot my favorite book: The Number of The Beast. Great book told from the revolving perspectives of all the major characters.

  • HamNRye

    Eh, I liked some of his stuff, for instance “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, but frankly, Friday and everything after it was a total waste. Even Stranger in a strange land bogs down for about 50 pages of “Mike attends orgy”, “Mike gets philosophical”, “Mike attends orgy”. Then about ten pages to wrap up his death and close curtain.

    I never saw his incestuous fantasies to be anything but. I don’t know what social commentary lies in his fantasy to go back in time and have sex with his own mother. Just seems overly Freudian to me.

    And if that was his view of Feminism, he could keep it.

    Heinlein had his books, but later in life he was just a nasty old man spewing philosophical cliches in the middle of sex scenes. I found his own bizarre misogyny and racism also had the effect of warping his “social theory”.

    I would much rather read Walter Tevis or Artie Bester.

  • Ben Lear

    Why not rename the Bradley fighting vehicle in memory of Starship Troopers and the mobile infantry? “Service guarantees citizenship”

  • JL

    On the subject of race, lest we forget; Podkayne of ‘Podkayne of Mars’ and her family were Maori (aboriginis of New Zealand).

  • Stacy Brian Bartley

    Podkayne was only Maori on one side the other side were Swedes-as she mentions herself(I believe her mother’s maiden name was Swenson). A mixture which itself makes a point about Heinlein’s attitudes concerning race.
    regards
    Stacy Brian Bartley

  • Paragtim

    If R A H wrote it I think I’ve read it. All of his books can across as entertainment first and foremost. Some of the views were a little extreme for their time – “Service guarantees citizenship”, but maybe should be looked at again it light of Bush and Blair, and quite a few other “politicians”. The sooner we spread out from this rock the safer the gene pool will be

  • armchairdj

    I can’t believe the amount of knee-jerk PC-ness in some of these comments. It’s interesting that the people calling Farnham’s Freehold ‘racist’ and Friday ‘misogynist’ don’t really back it up with any cogent analysis. Both books are calculatedly outrageous – Heinlein did love to bait readers with hot-button no-nos that, stripped of context, can seem icky. But if you take the time to READ them, they’re always thought-provoking. He dispenses with political correctness to actually grapple with difficult issues rather than sidestepping them entirely out of a fear of offending.

    On a separate note, as for the Oedipal fantasies of the latter novels, I really enjoy them. There is a certain dirty-old-man element to them, but I think that’s awesome. When Lazarus Long seduces his mother via the power of time travel, it’s not just the sex dreams of a grandpaw made manifest. It’s also an interesting take on the way technology can reset even our most basic taboos. It’s this dizzying merger between Freudian psychology and future genetics. Someday in the near future, the DNA of gifted individuals will be spliced, diced and recombined to tease out every iota of genetic potential. Why not skip the lab and just time-hop back 100 years to bed Mother?

    I also love the way he attempts to rope all of his disparate characters and worlds into an overarching framework. This is a common impetus in sci-fi, from the universe-building of Marvel superheroes to the meta-theology of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Heinlein did it with panache and humor decades earlier.

  • John Beard

    I just want to say that I think I’ve read everything of Heinlein’s that I could find. To me, he is hands down the best author ever. My favorites are “The Moon is a harsh Mistress” & “By his Bootstraps”, which I think is the best time travel story ever written. My only regret is that he refused to reveal the plot of the final book of the “Lensman” series which E.E. “Doc” Smith verbaly related to him.

  • Harv Griffin

    Hey, Ted!

    Think you nailed it when you wrote: “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.” His books have given me hundreds of hours of pleasure over the years. @hg47

    • John Lake

      I stumbled across one of Robt’s earliest writings. I think he was still in high school. It was short, and concerned itself with bits of paper, dust, and sundry other things being blown about in a whirlwind over a New York sidewalk in the summer.
      I was young when I discovered Heinlein. I didn’t see any political or social philosophizing. Just good science fiction.

      He was a big influence on my early life.

  • http://www.RoseDigitalMarketing.com/ Christopher Rose

    “A copy is probably sitting in a box in your garage right now, in between Siddhartha and The Teachings of Don Juan.”

    Busted..!