Being a review of two recent volumes about Robert A. Heinlein: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948–1988, by William H. Patterson, Jr. (New York: Tor Books, 2014; $34.99 hc; 671 pages) and The Heritage of Heinlein: A Critical Reading of the Fiction, by Thomas D. Clareson and Joe Sanders (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland Books, 2014; $45.00 tpb; 220 pages).
One of the ways human beings organize the world is by prototypes. We define a set as a typical example and a bunch of other things that are like it. For instance, when I was growing up, the prototype Writer was Shakespeare, the Artist was Rembrandt, and the Composer was Beethoven.
In that way, Robert A. Heinlein has been often been taken as the prototype Science Fiction Writer, and as changes and new paradigms shake the field, he still sometimes represents the science fiction of the past. We can speak of the Good Old Days when everyone aspired to write like him or the Bad Old Days when no one wrote any better, or at least the Simpler Time (as Peter Straub’s Shadowland says, “when all of us lived in the forest and no one lived anywhere else”) when everyone knew who he was and had an opinion on him.
If we are going to pick a prototype, he is an obvious choice. He was the first writer to be declared a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and in a sense we could say he was several grand masters:
He was the Grand Speculator, imagining breakthroughs in science and technology and considering their possible results and implications and pondering the deep questions of ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics.
He was the Grand Technician. He was the master of what Jo Walton calls incluing, unobtrusively hinting at the ways the world we are reading about differs from the world we are living in (“The door dilated”), and if he didn’t invent the Future History—the chart of a consistent imagined future into which many tales may be plugged—he codified and defined it far better than it had been done before.
He was the Grand Recruiter; his “juveniles” gave the kids free samples of the Sense of Wonder that many would be hooked on for life.
And he was the Grand Amphibium. To him, the supposed walls between “Science Fiction” and “Mainstream” were merely lines drawn by others, to be used, avoided, or manipulated as he saw fit. In the ’40s, he expanded from the pulps to the slicks. In the ’60s, he was a crossover artist, joining Kurt Vonnegut and J. R. R. Tolkien in the move to pop/counterculture/”cult” fiction.
He has always been controversial. The criticisms of Stranger in a Strange Land almost make up an inadvertent Pooh Perplex. He wanted to create his own religion as L. Ron Hubbard did (even though he turned down all offers to do so). He was avidly read by Charles Manson (who couldn’t actually read a STOP sign without his lips getting tired). He put in the sex just to get us to read about the ideas. He put in the ideas just to get us to read about the sex. He was offering a secret initiation in the work of Aleister Crowley and/or G. I. Gurdjieff. Und so weiter.
Attacks on him offer an object lesson in the many sloppy ways the word fascist can be used, and H. Bruce Franklin devoted an entire book to Heinlein, the exemplar of all that is worst in Pig Capitalism. On the other side, Spider Robinson loves not wisely but too well, and Leon Stover wrote what is probably the only Twayne United States Authors study to repeatedly refer to its subject by a flattering nickname (“the Admiral”).
It’s getting better. The two-volume authorized biography is now complete. (Alas, William H. Patterson, Jr. did not live to see its publication.) It is joined by a substantial critical study, begun by the late Thomas D. Clareson and concluded by Joe Sanders. Both are cause for rejoicing.
The Man Who Learned Better
The Patterson bio is not as relatively long as its titles, but it is thorough and detailed, with a remarkable amount of information about an essentially private and even secretive subject. It leaves us far more able to understand the complex man who wrote the books. One caveat, though: Patterson obviously not only admires his subject (somewhat this side of idolatry; there are references to how difficult he could be) but also agrees with him on many controversial issues and is eager to expand upon those. We could do with substantially less discussion of how right Heinlein was about such topics as the degeneration of modern art and the collectivization of America.
Heinlein’s was a difficult life. We already knew about the major health problems: the tuberculosis that forced his retirement from the Navy in the ’30s, the 1970 attack of peritonitis that almost killed him, and the stroke-like ischemic episode a few years later that forced him to undergo a carotid bypass to be able to get a reasonable amount of blood to his brain. We learn that he was never really healthy after the tuberculosis; he suffered, among other ailments, skin cancers, urethral and rectal infections, hernia, gallstones, polycythemia, life-threatening nosebleeds, and finally the emphysema that killed him.
Patterson has further noted that Heinlein’s father was diagnosed with “involutional melancholia” (no longer a DSM-cromulent term), a form of depression characterized by, among other things, “delusions of ill health, poverty, sin, and sometimes even of the nonexistence of the world (all themes that were to show up later in Robert’s writing).” We learn in this volume that Heinlein himself feared that he was suffering from the condition and took the approved treatment, synthetic testosterone, a factlet that could launch a thousand bad jokes and metaphors.
One could pathologize his fictionalized doubt of external reality on the basis of this new information, but I would prefer to see it as transforming pain into art. Heinlein said that the reason he wrote about solipsism was that he could make good stories about it. One could find more stigmatizing interpretations, but he was right about that part; he explored some of the same territory as Philip K. Dick. The ultimately paranoid/solipsistic “Them,” like Fredric Brown’s “Answer,” has found its way into folklore, told by people who have no idea that it was a work of fiction written by an actual, identifiable person. As for the other parts, clearly Heinlein’s ill health was not delusional, and if he had fears of sin, he obviously didn’t let on.
One issue that many of us wanted to see a biography shed more light on was Heinlein’s politics. I can remember when it was a commonplace of sf criticism that Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers, by being so utterly different yet written by the same person, proved conclusively that the reader can tell nothing whatsoever about the writer from the writer’s fiction. Then we encountered Expanded Universe, with large nonfiction sections by Heinlein himself, speaking first-person nonfictional and, except for a few specifics, saying that he believed all the things we always knew he believed. He said that those two books and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress together summarized his entire political philosophy and anyone who liked only one didn’t understand it. Clearly, such an approach is not a simple one, but Patterson helps us see where one person could believe all of it, and when there are conflicts of principle, they are likely to be the sort that fiction thrives on.
We knew before the bio (typically not from Heinlein himself) that, in the ’30s, he supported Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty In California, an approach so frighteningly leftist that the Hollywood moguls hired actors to put on Russian accents and say it was just like what they do in the old country. We know that he wound up supporting bomb shelters and the Strategic Defense Initiative. Patterson shows us the journey.
After a flirtation with Social Credit and some other nonstandard economic approaches, Heinlein settled down to a particularly rugged-individualist form of libertarianism, but it always had to be at least balanced by the need for defense with the restrictions on individual behavior that that implies. Presumably, he came by his excessive fears honestly. A graduate of a military academy has gone through four years of hearing that defense is extremely important, and it is not surprising when such a graduate finds it easy to see enemies that our nation needs to be protected from. Having the misfortune to be visiting Russia at the time of the U2 mess didn’t help.
The one politician Heinlein most resembled and admired in the period of the second volume was Barry Goldwater: the emphasis on defense, the belief that racism was awful but federal action was not the answer (to that question or just about anything else), and the importance of personal liberty and responsibility. The similarity seems less surprising now that we know that the supposedly conservative Goldwater was a supporter of Planned Parenthood, was way ahead of the curve on allowing gays to serve openly in the military, and thought that Jerry Falwell needed a good kick in the ass.
Patterson also gives us insights into Heinlein’s personal and professional relationships. Shortly after his death, Virginia Heinlein released Grumbles from the Grave, a selection from his letters. Frederik Pohl, in his Foreword to the Clareson-Sanders book, describes the book as “Milquetoast for five-year-olds.” But Pohl had known Heinlein in person. Perhaps as a result of not having had that pleasure, I found the book unpleasant enough, particularly in its dealings with Heinlein’s two major editors: the presentation of his letters in the book made him seem dominant in his dealing with John W. Campbell, who needed his work, and submissive to Scribner’s editor, Alice Dalgliesh, who didn’t. (And after he left Scribner’s, he took Novelist’s Revenge, creating a character named Agnes Douglas who was a shrew and a goad and, accidentally or otherwise, referring to her once as “Alice.”)
Patterson fills out the picture of these two relationships. We see Campbell giving as good as he got in their disputes, and there was a long-lasting, though difficult, friendship. We get a fuller sense of the problems with Dalgliesh, who, from her own inclinations or the pressures of the Children’s Fiction business, felt compelled to protect the tender minds of the young not only from actual sex but from anything that could arouse the prurient interests of a Freudian.
In one way, Patterson’s book ends like a Philip K. Dick novel, with an unforeshadowed and unresolved new plot twist. We have had the story of Heinlein’s marriages as fictionalized in Farnham’s Freehold: Leslyn, the old wife sunk in paranoia and alcoholism, and Ginny, the young and vibrant Other Woman, with the choice all but forced on the protagonist. In the second and final appendix, however, we have a letter from Grace Dugan Sang, a friend from those days mentioned in the first volume, which usefully complicates the story, showing Leslyn’s flaws but also Ginny moving in and shoving Leslyn out of the way.
The Heritage of Heinlein
Clareson and Sanders’s book is a prime example of how a single-author study should be done. It covers the entire oeuvre, it is balanced in its judgments, and it offers just enough biographical, philosophical, and political background to help the reader understand and appreciate the work being discussed.
Clareson and Sanders begin with a chapter devoted to Heinlein’s first effort, For Us, the Living, which he quite reasonably disavowed and attempted to suppress. Frederik Pohl’s preface thanks them for making it unnecessary to read the book, but it was too late for me, and I have to say that the work offered a few amusing signs that the author would become Robert A. Heinlein.
Then we get the Future History and other early efforts, followed by a chapter on the stage where he was moving over to the Saturday Evening Post. The juveniles are thoroughly discussed, and then the “classic” period (the books that most people like, such as Double Star and The Door into Summer). Stranger in a Strange Land gets its own chapter, as it should.
A single chapter covers everything after Stranger, offering insights into many of the vexed questions those later works present, with sympathetic and often positive views of what many readers consider mere symptoms of artistic self-indulgence and decay. There is a brave effort to make sense of the disastrous I Will Fear No Evil, making us wish even more that Heinlein had been healthy enough to apply to it the kind of self-editing that did so much for Stranger. There is an excellent look at The Cat Who Walks through Walls, the obliquely hinted machinations behind its scenes, and the complexities of its deliberately unresolved conclusion. (I think it and The Crying of Lot 49 are the two novels that best get away with not ending.)
The authors do not answer what I consider the greatest question raised by the late works, and perhaps no one can. In a speech reported in the Patterson bio, Heinlein, after explaining why he was unable to repair I Will Fear No Evil, said that it outsold Stranger. The later ones also sell well, and if the hostile term solipsist applies, it would mean that millions of people want to read about being figments of Heinlein’s imagination. Why are the books so popular? The books remain in print today, in new formats and also among the few survivors in the moribund mass market paperback format.
Clareson and Sanders offer many useful insights throughout; for instance, they note that even in his awful first literary effort, Heinlein set out to use Socratic dialogue rather than lecture to make his points. Still, the failure mode of Socratic dialogue is lecture. (Socrates himself fell into it in The Republic.) There was more and more of that as Heinlein aged, but at least he never wrote the sort of book in which the last few hundred pages are devoted to the hero telling us wherein he is right and everyone else is wrong.
There are minor blemishes in the text. One that seems particularly relevant here is the reference to NYRSF publisher Kevin “Mahoney”; also, the term Menippean satire, applied by another critic to Stranger, comes out as “minopian.”
So is he a prototype?
One recent invocation of Heinlein as prototype is the argument that if he were a new writer, he could not get published. In a trivial sense, that is true. SF writers set out to make their work obsolete; it means they’re doing their job. For instance, in one futuristic Heinlein projection, a character, out in the wilderness, takes from his pocket a small device attached to nothing and uses it to make contact with the rest of the world. By now, that’s boring old consensus reality. Likewise the daring suggestion of people all getting to use the same water fountains despite the continent their ancestors are supposed to have come from. A new Heinlein would have to provide new novelties.
Race is one of the areas where Heinlein can represent good but no longer good enough. From the very beginning, he had no patience with considering blacks even half savage; he presented characters who turned out to be nonwhite and so what?, and he noted that humanity needs to transcend petty distinctions of pigmentation to have any hope of dealing with really alien aliens. That, however, is no longer the cutting edge.
Farnham’s Freehold was sf’s first great Racefail. If the word agenda were plural in English as it is in Latin, we could say that Heinlein always had several. Here, while putting in a plug for bomb shelters and romanticizing Free Men, he set out to give racism a good kick in the metaphorical gonads by the method of satirical reversal. What he ended up with, instead, is a book that is remembered as the one with the black cannibals. Indeed one academic critic, apparently relying on secondary rather than primary sources, said that Hugh Farnham was the leader of the black cannibals.
Podkayne of Mars offers an analogous problem. In those days, a strong, intelligent, young female protagonist was a bold, new idea. Heinlein created one but gave her a voice emetic in its cuteness, the condition later diagnosed as Gidget’s disease.
Heinlein believed in strong sexual dimorphism. That’s endemic even today, but there was more to it than that. The unusual part was that he really liked women and considered them better than men in many ways, and it was not the kind of soi-disant female supremacism that tells women to do the really important things like bearing and rearing and leave to mere men such trivialities as art, science, and power. He was enthusiastic about female physicists and female presidents. That may explain some of the sometimes apologetic affection for the old man often expressed by female sf readers who disagree with him about many other things.
One might also expect an sf prototype to display the cold-as-equations toughness that is supposed to characterize hard sf. Not Heinlein. Like his later characters, he talked macho but was an old sentimentalist not too far below the surface. In life, he wept at his weddings and at many funerals. His writer stand-in character, Jubal Harshaw, dictated a gooey tale of a little lame kitten at Christmas to his secretary, and both ended up with tears running down their cheeks, “bathed in catharsis of schmaltz,” and he himself can be assumed to have had that experience. If he could not end a story with the Wedding March, he was likely to end with Taps; many of his tales conclude with tributes to fallen heroes, including in Starship Troopers one who wasn’t even in the story. Perhaps this trait connects to his notorious sensitivity: ignoring critics when he could, behaving badly when he couldn’t, repeatedly treating them in his fiction as villains and parasites.
While Heinlein consistently emphasized the importance of recognizing the facts and using the scientific method, he also insisted that there were areas that that approach could not touch, including the nature of human consciousness and the final question of why there is anything rather than nothing. Distrust of organized religion was below the surface in everything he wrote, and as expressing such distrust became more acceptable, he did more and more of it. Nevertheless, he was also willing to question the assumption that science has a final answer to everything religion claims. Category fiction can be seen as a series of implicit agreements between writer and reader—the romance heroine will get her man, the detective will find the perpetrator—and some feel that Heinlein committed the biggest deal breaker ever when he set a scene of Stranger in a Strange Land in Heaven. Fans are still trying to explain that one away.
In general, Stranger is something more than a science fiction book. It has deficiencies as a well-told story, but Russell Blackford suggested considering it as an anatomy, a category defined by Northrop Frye as made up of large books in which the central plot is subsidiary to digressions, copias, lists, set pieces, parodies, and other sideshows. (It is an approach that works well in sf, used by, among others, John Brunner in Stand on Zanzibar and Paul Di Filippo in Ciphers.) Those looking for good parts have found much, including sexual alternatives, Martian blasphemy that turns out to be Hindu orthodoxy, and one of the great sf dreams—what A. E. van Vogt called a “Null-A language,” one that conforms to the way things are so much better than ordinary language that it can be used to manipulate the world from a safe distance (a verbal waldo, as it were).
The book’s failures are not in its imaginings but in what it accepted. Heinlein set out to question all the assumptions of his society, but no one ever does that. The notorious line is “Nine times out of ten when a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.” That was, when the book was written, not only what almost everyone believed but also what the criminal law said. (We used to live in even more of a rape culture.)
One quality we might expect of an sf prototype is that he writes about action and adventure, that he follows the traditional injunction to show rather than tell. That is not Robert Heinlein. Clareson and Sanders note that throughout his career he skimped on the action to get to the parts he found more interesting. (It became particularly noticeable in Time Enough for Love with the crucial escape by the good guys taking place entirely offstage, but he’d been doing it all along.) They add that he took the same approach to writing about sex, continuing to spare the reader explicit descriptions long after the taboo on such had ended.
Heinlein was in his own way as oblique and evasive as Gene Wolfe. He told several people that Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil is black and that the book says so in so many words. Within the text of Stranger in a Strange Land, we are told that we have enough information to determine which of the women introduced Valentine Michael Smith to the joys of sex, but I read the book at least ten times in the ’60s, and I still don’t know whodunit. (The expanded version does not help.) Clareson and Sanders appear to have found the money quote in Fear (“That off-white sets off your skin”) but offer no guidance on the defloration issue.
Heinlein liked to present himself as a plain old storyteller competing for the reader’s beer money, with none of those fancy tricks the “literary” types use, and he has long been used as a stick to beat those who openly aim higher. Perhaps, though, in G.K. Chesterton’s image, the defenders who did so were picking up a boomerang. Gardner Dozois wrote a well-known fanzine article suggesting that many of the offenses traditional sf readers and writers found worst in the New Wave reached their highest fruition in the Heinlein of the ’70s and early ’80s.
Furthermore, Leon Stover did us a service by pointing out that Heinlein had his own mainstream sources: not John Dos Passos and Joseph Conrad but Vincent McHugh and James Branch Cabell. One could also note that his textual interaction with his own earlier characters had its precedents in literary fiction. The gatherings of his fictional clans in Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks through Walls reminded me of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family, though the Glasses eschewed the sexual goings-on of the Heinlein characters in favor of adoration of each other’s profound spiritual qualities. (I, for one, prefer Heinlein’s approach.) At around the time of Number, John Barth, then an academically respected figure (and one Heinlein is on record as admiring), brought the protagonists of all his earlier books together with the author himself in letters (1979).
We will not stop hearing about Heinlein as the Good Old Days or Heinlein as the Bad Old Days, but he really is more interesting than that. A classic is a work that keeps on facilitating professional discourse production, according to the noted critic N. Mack Hobbs (as reported by Frederick C. Crews). By that standard, Robert A. Heinlein is a classic, and there is no chance that either the bio or the critical study will become the final word. They are, however, both essential reading for those of us who keep seeking more understanding of this complex and fascinating literary figure.
Arthur D. Hlavaty lives in Yonkers, New York.