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.Powered by Sidelines