Do you know someone — a friend, a coworker, a family member — whom you esteem for their many good qualities… and yet whose extreme and undeniable character flaws can sometimes make you want to banish them from your life forever? Of course you do. (Humility and the law of averages should also make you acknowledge that for someone else you know, there’s a good chance that you are that person.)
For me, that problematic individual is Robert A. Heinlein. Dominating the science fiction field from the moment his first story, “Lifeline,” appeared in the August, 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction to his death almost a half century later, Heinlein was arguably the most important writer in the history of American genre sf. In 1974 he was the first writer named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America and was the winner of four Hugo Awards for best novel (and seven “retro” Hugos for works published prior to 1953). Invoking his name can start a passionate argument even now, and he’s been gone for thirty-three years.
For some, Robert A. Heinlein is the embodiment of golden age greatness, the all-wise Father of modern science fiction, the fountain from which everything flows. For others, he’s an embarrassing example of all that’s wrong with the genre, too white, too male, too American, a regressive relic best disowned and discarded. I know just how you feel, all of you, because I have a foot planted firmly on each side of the line.
On the one hand, I adore Heinlein’s work and on the other hand, I loathe it. I have to admit that the case for the prosecution is strong and impossible to ignore. On a purely technical level, his worst books (mostly the ones that appeared in the last two and half decades before his death in 1988) are intolerably talky, their plots immobilized by the dead weight of page after endless page of preaching and given a gloss of spurious profundity by increasingly solipsistic and self-referential authorial games. In their deadly blending of narrative tedium and pompous, egoistic shamanism, they are the very definition of self-indulgence.
As for actual substance, politically Heinlein too often came across as a crude power worshipper, though the charge of outright fascism that some make against him (an attitude best exemplified in the cartoonish Starship Troopers movie) won’t stick. An unapologetic believer in what are often called the “military virtues” (discipline, order, courage, devotion to duty), Heinlein certainly thought that the application of overwhelming force was a perfectly acceptable solution to a particular kind of problem, which is not all that surprising coming from a man of the World War Two generation.
On the other hand, one of the strongest impressions you get from Heinlein’s books is his hatred of official, bureaucratic authority, and his greatest delight is to see such arbitrary authority baffled, bullied, humiliated and routed; in any conflict between an individual and an organization, Heinlein is invariably on the side of the individual. Formally, he was a radical libertarian, but temperamentally, he went even farther than that; he was fundamentally an anarchist. For some that will be a virtue, for others a defect. Your mileage will vary, but even if you are in sympathy with his outlook, it must be conceded that whenever any situation calls for political solutions, Heinlein is only too ready to reach for a blunt instrument.
Heinlein’s attitude towards women is more problematic than his politics. Beneath a veneer of sexual liberation and social equality lies a patronizing paternalism that’s simply infuriating. For example, in the incoherent manifesto-cum-novel Stranger in a Strange Land (a book that is the key to all that is worst in Heinlein), the women are all completely liberated, and what do they choose to do with their liberation? Wait hand and foot on the pseudo-messiah Valentine Michael Smith and his mentor, Jubal Harshaw (who unceasingly yells “front!” and expects one or all of his infinitely pliable “secretaries” to come running up to cater to his every whim, and they do, with a patient indulgence and unfailing good humor that’s as divorced from reality as a Salvador Dali daydream). In Heinlein’s books (the later ones, especially) men often use terms of address like “little one,” “pretty foots,” “youngster,” “kid,” “dimples,” and similar infantilisms when speaking to their supposed female equals. “People lose teeth talking like that” as Humphrey Bogart said in the Maltese Falcon, but Heinlein’s women lap it up. I generally dislike language policing but a single paragraph of this sort of clueless condescension sets my teeth on edge and a whole page of it makes me want to scream and heave the book through the window.
Add to all this the undisguised goatishness of a middle-aged male writer whose idea of a well-ordered world is apparently one in which an endless stream of beautiful, cheerfully compliant young women are sexually available to him on a no-obligation basis and you’ll see why most Heinlein fans are men. Giving such inflatable women fake agency by making them protagonists, as in the late novel Friday, doesn’t change the situation; in fact, it makes it worse by laying the hypocrisy of the exercise bare, so to speak. (Michael Whelan’s cover for Friday gives the game away — Raquel Welch should have sued.) Heinlein’s best female character is probably Patricia “Peewee” Reisfeld in Have Space Suit, Will Travel and significantly, she’s only eleven years old. I shudder to think what he would have made her after she reached puberty.
These are all severe shortcomings, but for me the moral coarseness that was often present, even in Heinlein’s best work, is what tells against him most. He divided everyone into two groups: the competent, free-thinking, and ruthless, who have a right to do as they want, and the incompetent, conventional, and stupid, who deserve to go to the wall. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth, even as Heinlein generously permits you to assume that you are one of the superior ones — after all, you’re smart enough to be reading one of his books.
Even as a kid, though, I knew that there are precious few science-fiction supermen in the world and that failing to win the genetic intelligence lottery doesn’t make you less of a human being; after all, most people are a flawed mixture of strength and weakness, sharpness and stupidity, competence and incompetence, and are just trying to muddle through as best they can in a world that is a hell of a lot bigger than they are. That much was clear whenever I looked at my family, my friends, my teachers, and yes, even (or especially!) myself.
The one time Heinlein seems to recognize this less than ideal reality is in Double Star, the story of Lorenzo Smythe, a ham actor shanghaied into impersonating a galactic politician who is recovering from an unsuccessful assassination attempt. At the end of the book, the politician dies and the Great Lorenzo assumes the role for life. After twenty-five years of “being” Joseph Bonforte, Lorenzo reflects back on what he has accomplished: “There is solemn satisfaction in doing the best you can for eight billion people. Perhaps their lives have no cosmic significance, but they have feelings. They can hurt.” That’s a rare note of compassion coming from the steel-plated competence-worshipper, and it makes Double Star Heinlein’s best adult novel. But when that note of empathy is absent, as it all too often is, Heinlein’s “every man for himself” ethos can make him a callous, morally repulsive writer.
So… the case for the prosecution rests. The verdict? Guilty, Your Honor. I can’t stand Robert A. Heinlein. To the bonfire with him and all his works! But wait — there is another case to be made, the case for the defense, and it’s imperative to make it, because I love Heinlein and there are too many books of his that I couldn’t do without.
More than any other writer, it was Heinlein who drew me to the science fiction genre when I was a kid. When I first discovered them, his books exerted an irresistible pull over me; I was almost literally addicted to them. His juveniles were what I read first (in the Ace paperback editions with the wonderful Steele Savage covers), and in those books that I devoured one after the other like so many potato chips (except that you can’t eat the same potato chip five or six times, the way I compulsively reread my favorite Heinlein novels) — Have Space Suit Will Travel, Red Planet, The Rolling Stones, The Star Beast, Tunnel in the Sky, Space Cadet — the narrative voice is irresistibly beguiling, with its wisecracking, confidential tone. It was a voice that never talked down to me and told me that I was equal to anything life could throw at me because I was a human being with the divine ability to think. And being juveniles, many of the defects I’ve already mentioned were moderated or even nonexistent in those books, though they were still plenty sophisticated enough to be suitable for adults… who usually aren’t nearly as excited about thinking as young people are. Heinlein at his best could get you excited about thinking.
Reading those first Heinlein novels was like getting letters from a pen pal who lived in the future, messages that came from an incredibly exciting, optimistic place of continually unfolding wonders, full of fascinating problems and challenges — but a concretely realized, completely believable place that one day I was going to get to live in, too. Even in those books, Heinlein had a weakness for a good lecture, but the preaching was kept on a leash; it never impeded the narrative flow, never got in the way of a gripping story that I just had to finish, a story filled with fresh, funny characters who became my friends. And anyway, when you’re young, you don’t mind listening to a short sermon or two; you desperately want to find out how the world works, and this man came across as someone who knew. Certainly, no other writer gave me that wonderful “the future is now” feeling like Robert A. Heinlein did.
The adult novels of the 50′s (Double Star, The Door into Summer, The Puppet Masters) are also extremely well-made and entertaining, but as the 60′s progressed the tone of the lectures became increasingly hectoring, and they started to expand until they overwhelmed the stories. By the time the 70’s rolled around the books had thickened (or curdled) and became, for me at least, unreadable. (I very rarely give up on books, but for the past forty years my bookmark has been frozen on page one hundred sixty something of I Will Fear No Evil and I expect it will remain there for the duration, especially since I already peeked at the last chapter and know how it ends.)
What makes Heinlein such a problematic and yet still vital writer is that his virtues and vices are so mixed, as I realized anew when I started writing this essay; it was impossible to think of one of his virtues without a corresponding vice instantly coming to mind, and vice-versa. If his work were all of a piece, he would be easier to judge, but it’s the conflict between his empathy and humanity and vision on the one hand and his callousness and solipsistic selfishness and inflexible certainty on the other that gives his work a real creative tension. When the balance lurches too far in the wrong direction, however, the result can be ugly — morally and aesthetically.
The hinge that Heinlein’s career turned upon and the point where the balance decisively shifted for the worse was, as I’ve already implied, his 1961 Hugo Award winning novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. There was some bad Heinlein before that and some good Heinlein after, but Stranger is the line of demarcation between the writer and the Oracle. (The last thing he wrote where the elements were in anything resembling balance was The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but there are still a lot of people who can’t read that book, though I do like it.) Despite an intriguing premise and some rousing scenes, Stranger in a Strange Land is the point where telling a story took a back seat to pontificating from the balcony, and story never got its hands on the wheel again, or not completely.
That was a genuine loss, because at his best, Heinlein told stories that really moved. In Have Space Suit, Will Travel (for my money his best book) the teenage protagonist Kip Russell can barely turn around twice before he jumps from earth to the moon to Pluto to Vega to a planet out of the galaxy altogether, somewhere in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, dodging ruthless alien space pirates all the way, and finishing by standing in front of a galactic court, pleading for the life of the human race, which the court is considering terminating — the human species may be too dangerous and unpredictable to be allowed to exist. (If you can resist jumping up and down and cheering during that scene, at least internally, I’ll drop you from my Christmas card list; you’re not worth the stamp.) The story is intensely dramatic and exciting (and funny), and most of all, it never slows down or loses its forward momentum. At the top of his form, Heinlein had his foot on the gas every minute, and if he indulged in the occasional aside along the way, you didn’t mind because you knew you were going somewhere.
As a social prophet, Heinlein is often startlingly prescient, though like the rest of us lesser mortals, he is often both right and wrong. His views on sexual mores and practices are a case in point. He would be completely unsurprised by marriage equality, and when group marriages are recognized (as they inevitably will be) he again wouldn’t bat an eye. He predicted these things in the Eisenhower 50’s, when they were not a part of anyone else’s futures.
At the same time, though, his view of sex as a weightless act with no more moral or social significance than brushing your teeth is sheer fantasy. The depictions of utterly frictionless sexual relationships in his later books make you wonder if he ever knew any actual men and women. (And sex in his books is so boring; reducing the act to something that has no more meaning than trimming your toenails means that every time he goes on at length about sex, it’s as engaging as reading eight pages about… trimming your toenails.)
Heinlein’s highs and lows over a long career make it especially important to seek out his best books (and he wrote an armload of great ones), but when I go to the local chain, it baffles and infuriates me to see that it’s the latter, bloated, ossified tomes that are mostly on the shelves. People tell me they don’t like Heinlein and I ask what they’ve read (or tried to read) — The Number of the Beast?! Oh my God! Judgements about writers should be based on their strongest work, and that’s hard to do if Barnes and Noble only stocks The Cat Who Walks Through Walls or To Sail Beyond the Sunset. For anyone who wants to sample him at his peak, I would suggest A Heinlein Trio, which collects his three best novels of the 50’s — the aforementioned The Puppet Masters, Double Star, and The Door into Summer. The first is a bloodcurdling tale of an invasion by mind-controlling alien slugs, the second a Machiavellian yarn of high stakes galactic politics, and the third an ingenious time travel story with surprising emotional depth.
The Trio was published a long time ago by the Science Fiction Book Club, but it’s still easily obtainable from all the usual suspects (or you could just buy the three novels individually — The Puppet Masters seems to be the only one that’s currently out of print).
I would also add a “juvenile trio” — my choices would be Red Planet, Space Cadet, and Have Space Suit, Will Travel. If you can read those six books (and all six together are shorter than many of today’s doorstoppers) without being enthralled and entertained and delighted (and sometimes angered or put off — they all contain elements of Heinlein at his worst, too) then you are to be commended; you have an extraordinary resistance to the skills of someone who was, at his best, one of the all-time great science fiction storytellers.
Robert A. Heinlein has to be read, he has to be remembered and honored — but certainly not uncritically. There are books of his that I would under no circumstances part with, because of their drive, inventiveness, and brave, buoyant joy in drawing aside the curtain that conceals the future, a future that will be more amazing than we can imagine, a future that we can master by thinking and acting without fear, with confidence in our best selves — the books I’ve already mentioned plus Citizen of the Galaxy, Farmer in the Sky, Glory Road, The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (a dark fantasy in a class by itself in Heinlein’s work, a metaphysical nightmare as brilliant and terrifying as Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday), and many more… and just as many more that are capsized by his preachiness, pontifical certainty, wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing sexism, and arrogant, unfeeling indifference to human weakness. Whichever side of the line you come down on — or if you find yourself straddling it like I do — the one thing you can’t do is pretend that he is a negligible writer without continuing value or significance. How many writers can still start a pro-con knock down-drag out fight almost a century after they first appeared on the scene?
In his prime, Heinlein’s pied-piper narrative voice carried all before it, sometimes even to the point of obscuring what he was actually saying. Because he can so easily disarm you with his brash charm, he’s a writer you can never drop your guard with; you always have to keep him in front of you. Infuriating, innovative, divisive, inspiring, contentious, courageous, dangerous, bafflingly obtuse and astonishingly prescient, Robert A. Heinlein, a writer of undeniable virtues and inexcusable defects, is just as essential now as he ever was. I’m sure he’d rather be remembered for his faults than not be remembered at all, but I find that when all the evidence is weighed, I’m inclined to be more generous in my judgment than that.
So… what’s your verdict?
Thomas Parker is a native Southern Californian and a lifelong science fiction, fantasy, and mystery fan. When not corrupting the next generation as a fourth grade teacher, he collects Roger Corman movies, Silver Age comic books, Ace doubles, and despairing looks from his wife. His last article for us was a review of Arch Oboler’s Drop Dead! or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Chicken Heart that Devoured the World but Were Afraid to Ask