ROBERT A. HEINLEIN: In Dialogue With His Century: Volume 2 The Man Who Learned Better
Hardcover: 672 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; Second Edition edition (June 3, 2014)
Anyone who has been around Amazing Stories, or even any SF fan hang-out on the web over the past couple of years knows that I am a huge Heinlein fan (not to mention a huge fan of the “classics” of our genre and a fierce defender of the gifts that authors like Heinlein – Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov, Farmer, Piper, Chandler, Anderson, Aldiss, Brunner, Russell, Le Guin, Kornbluth, Wilhelm, Merrill, Brackett, Tiptree, Moore… – have bestowed upon us over the years). I have little patience for revisionist history when it comes to re-casting their work or their contributions – especially when it comes to those who I knew personally (even if peripherally) and ESPECIALLY when facts on the ground directly contradict more recent contentions made about their supposed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, homophobia, short-sightedness, intentions, etc.
These attacks on our founders rankle, largely because I believe that we should be building rather than tearing down. I find them troublesome for the very reason that they contradict the facts, and here I thought that since we’ve all read 1984, we’re all well aware of the pitfalls of Nuspeak and seek to avoid playing the propaganda game of drowning out a past we’re uncomfortable with, with inaccurate and distorted claims. As participants in a field that values scientific accuracy and one that often seeks to impart lessons for life (showingthe way to a better society), surely we have all learned by now that basing our argument(s) on false data may sway in the short term but leads to more problems than it solves in the future. Apparently, at least within our community, that is not the case.
Which is a shame because even if Heinlein was the man being portrayed in revisionist histories and critiques (totally racist, totally fascist, totally misogynistic, totally privileged and completely insensitive white male), there are still valuable things we can learn from his experiences. We do not (much) criticize Og the cave person for shitting where she eats as we know that she could not possibly have known better. We do remain grateful that she discovered how to tame fire.
It is not necessary to tear down in order to build. It is not necessary to distort the past in order to discuss it meaningfully in the here and now.
But this is a review, not a political polemic, no matter how much it could become the latter. It’s problematic for me precisely because I am so close to the subject and take it so personally.
The same statement can probably be made about William H. Patterson, Jr., Heinlein fan of Heinlein fans, the man Virginia Heinlein chose to replace Leon Stover as her husband’s biographer, a long time fan of the genre, one of the assistant editors of the Virginia Editions of Heinlein’s works, a founder of the Heinlein Society.
Elsewhere, Patterson has been roundly accused of two things: of writing a hagiography and of injecting his own views in substitution for Heinlein’s own.
Alas, it is true.
But let me back up a bit and kind of start from the beginning.
Robert A. Heinlein was first published in 1939 and remained a major contributor to the field from then until 1988 when his last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, was published. (And yes, I have read every single one, most multiple times, both originals and unedited re-issues, as well as every piece of non-fiction I have managed to lay my hands upon. Some I like more than others. There was a time when the advent of a new Heinlein novel was a joyous occasion.)
Over the course of that near half-century, Heinlein helped pioneer and establish the Young Adult SF novel (his originally referred to as the ‘juvenovel’), proved that a major motion picture faithful to both science AND science fiction could be produced and financially successful; opened up acceptance of the genre by mainstream publications, helped establish SFWA, helped improve the lot of the genre author (SFWA model contract), lent science fiction a great deal of respect and acceptance and amply demonstrated that science fiction had a role to play in public policy (Citizen’s Advisory Council).
He also belittled the fans, rejected dianetics (at the behest of his wife Virginia), established rules and guidelines that he alone was allowed to break, took from the genre what suited him, proffered or withheld largesse on seemingly petty, often contradictory grounds and was, quite frequently, a dick.
Numerous passages in Patterson’s bio (volume 2) recount Heinlein’s establishment of professional guidelines and proper behavior (never discuss the work in interviews, never talk shop with a colleague in public) and yet, on at least one notable occasion, he roundly broke those rules and seemingly made no bones about it. (During the Reagan Administration Heinlein was a member of a group of authors, scientists and engineers – Citizen’s Advisory Council – that was largely responsible for articulating the Strategic Defense Initiative – ‘Star Wars’; Arthur C. Clarke, counted as a friend by Heinlein, was speaking out against the program and, during a meeting with many other colleagues in attendance, Heinlein excoriated Clarke, brow-beating him publicly until he acquiesced. I was shocked to read of Heinlein using arguments like “this isn’t even your country…”)
Of course there is, famously, the Panshin incident; Heinlein apparently did not believe in “forgive and forget” – except when he wanted someone to forgive and forget his own transgressions (and whether or not Panshin’s actions needed forgiving is still a matter of great debate); it’s almost as if Mr. Heinlein decided, for shits and giggles, that he wasn’t going to like Alexei no matter what he did. In doing so, he violated his own exhortation to base decisions on the facts:
“What are the facts? Again and again and again – what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!”
I do endorse the sentiment, but I must confess that it was quite the revelation – and quite the let-down, to read between the lines of this biography and discover that, quite frequently, Mr. Heinlein does not seem to have taken his own advice. Pettiness is evident: he once punished Ben Bova and Omni magazine because it dared to publish a review by Panshin. (Based on that and similar actions, it is quite clear that Mr. Heinlein would have had a great deal of difficulty getting along in our social-networked age.)
Before I go any further, I need to say this: anyone and everyone in the field NEEDS to read this two volume set. There’s plenty in there about Heinlein’s writing process, the state of the field from the days of its Golden Age through the end of what is now its “classic” period (a sliding scale denoting anything 25 years old or older for my purposes); interesting and often entertaining anecdotes about other well-known names and the (sparsely) detailed life of an author who many think ought to rank up there with Twain and Mencken as an AMERICAN AUTHOR, rather than as the DEAN OF SCIENCE FICTION.
It also goes without saying that any Heinlein fan, and anyone wanting to acquire depth in their reading of the history of the field will find this a fascinating read, enough so perhaps to get one past the moments of utter frustration: again and again and again Patterson recounts an important episode in Heinlein’s life and leaves us hanging – we rarely, if ever, get to hear from Heinlein’s own mouth how he felt about something, what his opinions were. Rarely, if ever, are we privy to the whys.
At the conclusion (Patterson’s last chapter, recounting Heinlein’s passing, is quite moving and had me near to tears, leaving me feeling the way I did back in 1988 when I first learned that he was gone, feeling as if the very ground under my feet was crumbling away, reluctantly admitting that an era had come to an end), if one is honest, the reader is left with far too many questions that could have been answered and the realization that
Robert A. Heinlein was a pedantic, stuck up, opinionated, self-righteous, ornery, egotistical, prick. A man who was more than happy to tell the rest of us how we ought to be living our lives, insisting that we follow his guidelines when dealing with him while reserving the special privilege of not having to follow the rules to himself, a privilege sometimes but not always extended to his wife Virginia as well.
I now find that I don’t like Mr. Heinlein nearly as much as I once did. Before completing the biography (and particularly Volume 2), I was an unabashed fan of both the man and his works. I mistakenly assumed that the author of those stories that taught me TANSTAAFL, or that women could do anything a man could (and sometimes better) or, rather, that individuals, regardless of their sex (or other superficial differences) can be more or less capable at a given thing; that freedom and responsibility go hand-in-hand; that some principals are worth dying for; that the process of life is a process of learning and remaining open to learning; that being pragmatic does not have to mean the abandonment of ideals; that one should question authority – always – (and be willing to pay the price for doing so); that everything can and should be questioned, constantly…I mistakenly assumed that the man who wrote these things so forcefully and convincingly would be those things in real life.
I am guilty of making the same mistake that those who now seek to undermine his works are making, that of conflating the work with the author.
Of late I’ve read that he must have been a fascist – based on a reading of Starship Troopers. I’ve read that he must have been a homophobe – based on a reading of Stranger In A Strange Land. I’ve read that he must have been a misogynist – based on a reading of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
Yet none of those critiques ever cites the author’s intent, the time frame, the goal(s) for the particular work or the fact that, like nearly every other successful SF author of his generation, the work was a thought experiment. Not an exposition of the author’s personal beliefs but an extrapolation of the consequences of a particular theme. (Albeit as translated through the author’s filters.)
Yes, he did sign an open letter in favor of keeping our troops in Viet Nam. But not because he believed that the fascistic society depicted in Starship Troopers was the ideal solution to all of our political problems, but because he believed that communism was a dire threat to the western democracies and because he believed that if you commit to something, you ought to see it through. Our country had made promises and its word ought to be good. His fear of communism may have been misplaced (though it was certainly shared by many at the time and it was magnified in Heinlein’s perception by his intimate working knowledge of the implications of Soviet Satellites in orbit), but his concern about maintaining the reliance and good faith of the US is directly in keeping with the themes he espouses in his works. If you are going to take responsibility for something, you see it through, warts and all, and accept the consequences.
He had problems with the war –
“No, I don’t like this war. It’s a proxy war, and I don’t like proxy wars. It’s a war fought with conscripts, and I don’t like conscription at any time under any pretext…Slavery is not made any sweeter by calling it “selective service”….”
Yet responsibility trumped his dislikes –
“I can’t stand the thumb-fingered way Mr. Johnson and Mr. McNamara run this war. What the hell do they think men are? Lead soldiers to be expended at a whim? What the devil are we doing fighting an infantry war in a rain forest….
I think Mr. Johnson (President Lyndon Johnson) has handled this war very badly. But I’m damned if I’ll add to his troubles by public criticism – especially when my misgivings if expressed publicly, could give some aid & comfort to the enemy. I tool part in electing Mr. Johnson by voting against him; therefore I owe him full support during his tenure.”
Yes, he did have his characters express distaste for homosexuality in Stranger – initially. Later on in the same book, it becomes accepted and endorsed – the logical conclusion of the evolution in his character’s development. (If one is going to pull a quote from a book to illustrate a presumed position, the other quotes that contradict it ought to be included as well.)
“I think I find Gay Lib distasteful for much the same reasons you find Fem Lib not to your taste: Each is raucous. Not that I am disdainful of either one; they are doing valiant fighting for personal freedom.” and “But, speaking to you privately, I have no moral objections to homosexuality or homosexuals, none at all, and I am strongly of the opinion that the harm connected with it is culturally imposed and not innate.” (This from letters quoted in the biography and on the Heinlein Society site, accompanied by other thoughts on the subject. See Did Heinlein change his views on homosexuality over the years? ).
(For a pretty damned thorough analysis of this subject, check out Allyn Howey’s article in Strange Horizons.)
He is accused of misogyny through the pages of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I Will Fear No Evil, Stranger, Friday and other works, yet Delilah and the Space Rigger is usually entirely overlooked (it is a story about the integration of a female worker into an all male work force aboard a space station). Also over-looked is the fact that Wyoming Knot, the lead female character in Moon, was originally to have been the central character of the story. The portrayal of Star, the female lead in Glory Road is overlooked, as are the portrayals of Michelle, the female persona of Mike the computer in Mistress, Peewee from Have Spacesuit, Jacqueline “Jack” Daudet in Tunnel In the Sky….(During the run of the Signet juveniles, Heinlein received more appreciative fan mail from women and girls than he did from men and boys.)
For some additional discussion on that topic, see Heinlein’s Female Trouble in the New York Times.
I find it revelatory that these three novels in particular are the ones that the revisionists seem to focus on, since of them, Heinlein had this to say:
“If a person names as his three favorites of my books Stranger, Harsh Mistress, and Starship Troopers…then I believe that he has grokked what I meant. But if he likes one – but not not the other two – I am certain that he has misunderstood me, he has picked out points – and misunderstood what he picked. If he picks 2 out of 3, then there is hope, 1 of 3 – no hope.
All three books are on one subject: Freedom and Self-Responsibility.”
One strongly suspects (and knows from reading the bio) that Heinlein knew there was much in these novels that would be misread.
(In the interest of curtailing this review, I shall address the racism charge – largely based on Farnham’s Freehold – with this quote from the biography and a link to the infamous FM Busby letter:
Both Robert and Virginia campaigned for Barry Goldwater. Offers of assistance from a women who identified herself as a Negro came in to the district campaign headquarters and the chairman – Robert M. Laura – stated that he felt that they ought to form their own (negro) committee. Heinlein responded:
“They offered to stick their necks out; we should have shown instant gratitude and warmest welcome….I can’t see anything in this behavior but Jim Crowism….you were suggesting a Jim Crow section in the Goldwater organization. Mr. Goldwater would not like that. His record proves it. Negroes are citizens. Bob (Laura)….It is particularly offensive, this year and this campaign, to suggest that Negro Goldwater supporters form their own committee….”
I must have grokked what he meant as I have read all three of those novels pretty much once every year or so since the 1960s. Funny thing tho: I’ve never been moved to engage in incestuous relationships, never felt the urge to turn a friend into soup, never believed there was a ‘wrongness’ associated with homosexuality, never felt that women were anything less than equal representatives of our species, never believed that race affected ability.
Heinlein’s works went a long way towards teaching me those things. They also went a long way towards establishing and refining this genre as one that is capable of taking on these issues in nuanced and informative ways.
Heinlein the man? Ornery, opinionated, flawed, problematic. I’ll no longer assume that the writing reflects the man; his words are by him, they are not him.
Heinlein the biography? It performs a sad, yet necessary task, that of stripping away the veil and revealing the author as a human being and a writer. It is flawed, it is incomplete (very likely the result of restrictions placed upon the author), it frequently begs more questions than it answers, but it does, in many ways, allow us to move from one-sided criticism to some kind of open dialogue. This may be the last volume of Patterson’s biography, it most certainly will not be the end of the discussion.