Robert Heinlein

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Robert Heinlein was an interesting author, and one of my favorites. He was very talented, selling the first story he ever wrote, and then going from there. I doubt he ever had many (if any) stories rejected.
He began his career in 1939 after bad health forced him out of the military. During his first decade of writing professionally (with some time out to make scientific contributions to the Second World War) he was experimenting, trying both fantasy and science fiction, and many of the plots and scenarios established by others. Probably his most famous work in that decade was his Future History series of linked stories, which he never entirely finished, but some of the characters of which would turn up again later.He was pretty successful at just about everything he tried, but changed as he went along.
In his second decade of writing most of his work was for juveniles, mainly boys. That’s what’s known as the bildungsroman, in which a boy becomes a man. He wrote more than a dozen of these. Some, but not all, had simple plots, but the main attraction of them was the simplicity and clarity of the writing, which painted a picture of the story’s situation in simple words. The morality of the stories was usually easy to understand too.
One of the more complicated plots in these books (and one of the later ones) was Citizen of the Galaxy, in which the main character begins life as a slave, and is bought by a beggar on a world with a much different civilization than ours–apparently, at least. The boy (by now a young man) has to escape the world, and enters a different one: that of the Free Traders, a complicated and stratified society, each family based on its own spaceship.
The young man eventually has to leave this society too, and joins the military of the government centered on Earth. During his stay there it becomes necessary to ascertain his identity. He turns out to be the son of a rich man who had been lost in space decades ago. He was too young to be able to remember much about the trip or his capture, let alone his parents. Most of his memories are about the beggar who bought him, who turns out to have been an intelligence operative with a great loathing for slavery. He is disappointed to discover that some of the companies he now owns are or were complicit in the slave trade.
The beggar who raised him is the character who appears often in Heinlein, especially in his later work: The Wise Old Man. This is a way for Heinlein to express some of his own opinions, but is also an archetypal character.
I’m not sure what slavery symbolized for Heinlein. The institution, of course, was long gone by his day, and I don’t recall reading any comments of his on the novel. But he makes you feel the disgust for slavery he obviously feels. Morality is something important to Heinlein, and he expresses it clearly. You may disagree with his positions, but not that morality is a passion to him. This is certainly true of his juvenile novels to greater or lesser extent, becoming perhaps more important and certainly more complex in his later work in those genres. Citizen of the Galaxy wasn’t necessarily better than the others. They were all more or less good. But at that point, in the late 1950s, juvenile novels had become too confining for him. One thing about them that I’ve been curious about is that Heinlein never had any children. I don’t know if it was infertility or some other reason, but considering he wrote so many juveniles I wonder if he didn’t want to have children himself, was unable, and used this particular form to compensate by teaching other people’s children instead of his own.
His new writing phase probably began with Starship Troopers, in which a boy graduating from high school enlists in the military and grows up there. A bildungsroman again, but with more of a political component than before.
Many of the scenes are from a required high school class which has obviously greatly influenced the narrator. The teacher (another Wise Old Man) is explaining the way the current society is structured. It seems that there had been a devastating war, and the previous government had fallen apart. Veterans had put a government together and had withheld the vote from anyone who didn’t serve in the military. Those citizens were allowed to do anything else, but not to vote. The rationale is that military people have more sense of responsibility than people who didn’t serve.
Heinlein later said that when he said veterans he didn’t mean just military people, but he didn’t make that clear in the novel. I was too young to pick up on the controversy when I read it uncritically. Only later, on reading commentary on it by other people, did I even think about it. By that time I had already been disappointed by Heinlein’s support for the Vietnam war, so his viewpoint wasn’t entirely surprising. He had wanted to make the military his career, and had been frustrated by his health. So he must have idealized it, though he must also have known the history of the military around the world shows it can be as corrupt as any other part of society.
He did some of his best and most famous work in this latter phase of his career, but it was also less even in quality than previously. Stranger in a Strange Land is probably his most famous novel, and I found it thrilling when I first read it, partly because of Heinlein’s view of sexuality, partly because his Man from Mars had perspectives I’d never encountered before. The problem with that now is that Heinlein’s view of sex was very idealized. His main character did note how sad it was that people hurt each other that way, but didn’t really acknowledge just how badly people can hurt each other. Nice that Heinlein’s characters are sexy, frequently fall into bed with each other, and also manage never to hurt each other. Most of us aren’t so lucky or able.
Heinlein also had his Man from Mars “disappear” people who had bad intentions towards his friends. The first few times are described in detail, and the reader is most inclined to sympathize, but that kind of thing can become a habit, and near the end of the book the Man from Mars is getting rid of a lot of “criminal types”. Of course he “groks” who they are, so he’s unable to make mistakes, again unlike most people. Another Wise Old Man, Jubal Harshaw, is as important a character in Stranger as the Man from Mars himself. He explains a lot of the “Martian’s” perspectives to less sophisticated characters, as well as the reader. Since Harshaw is also a writer, it’s extremely obvious for whom he is a spokesman.
Three novels intervened between “Stranger” and Heinlein’s next great novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress;/. None of the three were terrible, but none was a masterpiece either. Podkayne of Mars may have been an attempt at a bildungsroman with a female lead character, but Podkayne didn’t really change much through the book. Glory Road could be read as the importance of being ready for adventure any time, but it wasn’t Heinlein’s best either. Farnham’s Freehold was a rather strange effort, in which a family is transported into the future in which blacks are the dominant race, and we discover they can be just as nasty as whites. I don’t recall that Heinlein acknowledges very clearly just how toxic American society has been to blacks, his effort being implicit more than explicit.
His next great novel (and possibly his best overall) was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which he does what he does about the best that he ever does it. The novel is set on Earth’s moon and is about a rebellion against Earth’s government led by self-aware computer. The situation is clearly parallel to the American Revolution, and the plot turns on the Earth’s single government as being too busy with other things, as well as the Moon’s advantage in being at the top of the gravity well. It enables them to throw stones.
Later Heinlein novels include one about a brain transplant I Shall Fear No Evil, and Time Enough for Love, which is built around a character from a previous novel who is now over a thousand years old (yet another Wise Old Man, and this one the main character), and includes a lot of stories from his life. One of the most curious aspects of the latter novel is that the main character goes back in time and has sex with his own mother. This is a measure of Heinlein’s idealism of sex, and this is one area in which I think he was mistaken. Perhaps some people can have incestuous relationships without damaging anyone, but the preponderance of evidence seems to say that incest is taboo for a reason: it may be almost universally tempting, and it does seem to be damaging for most participants. This particular theme makes you wonder if Heinlein felt sexually deprived, or whether he was merely recounting some things he had done, or wanted to do.
The novel that sets the blueprint for most of Heinlein’s later work, though, isThe Number of the Beast in which one of his characters invents a device that can take you to parallel worlds; a world where Germany and/or Japan won World War II, for instance. But Heinlein takes his characters to fictional worlds like Oz, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars, and eventually his own novels. There are villains in this one, though we’re never sure just who and what they are, but they clearly resent anyone else being able to travel in the way Heinlein’s characters do, trying to destroy anyone who does. This provides the basis for several other novels, and the feeling of them is curious.
Heinlein was in poor health for much of the time between the late sixties and 1987, when he died. These novels read like a fear of death, and desire for immortality, as when, in Time Enough for Love, the main character gets rescued at the point of death by friends in a time machine. The last line of the novel is, “Oh, you can never die.”
One wonders too about the confluence of Heinlein characters at the end of The Number of the Beast. Is this just in praise of a good party? Or is it a sort of celebration of Heinlein’s real-life friends? Did he feel closer at this point to his own characters than to very many actual friends? Or was he feeling lonely, instead? I don’t have any definitive answer.
Like any author, he had his blind spots, but in my opinion he created a lasting array of well-crafted high-quality stories, even in the latter part of his career, when his work got more peculiar. I hope people are still reading them. I think they’re missing something if they don’t.

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2 thoughts on “Robert Heinlein

  1. Well I think I need to read some Heinlein now. I never have, but I am a huge sci-fi fan. I’ve been trying to make a go of reading more of the “essential” authors and have enjoyed many of them. Which would you recommend starting with?

    Side note, after the mention of “The moon is a harsh mistress” the italics continue. Might want to edit to clear that up.

    • Thanks for the side note. Where I personally started reading Heinlein was with his novels written for juveniles. He had at least a dozen of those, and a lot of them are very good. Stranger in a Strange Land is probably his most famous novel, and you could start there too. There’s also his future history series, from early in his career, which I didn’t care for quite as much. Not all his work was great, but a lot of it was, so you might start almost anywhere.

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