The Things Robert Heinlein Taught Me

Things that Grandpa Bob taught me.

Over on Facebook there’s a lively group devoted to Robert A. Heinlein.  Sometimes the discussion gets a bit preachy from the right side of the spectrum (they seem to think they own RAH), but more often than not it’s a bunch of people who were deeply influenced by reading Heinlein and who are interested in sharing some of their favorite reads with like-minded individuals.

puppetThe group regularly schedules a book discussion with the subject chosen by poll.  The most recent (scheduled for September 26th) focuses on RAH’s alien invasion masterpiece The Puppet Masters.  Folks are posing various comments in the lead up and the other day I was prompted to offer a few humorous things the novel taught me, among which was “never let your cat visit with the hermit down the lane”.

If you are as familiar with the novel as I and the other members of the group are, this life lesson will not only make complete sense but ought to raise at least a mild chuckle as, in terms of real life lessons one can learn from Heinlein, this one is quite useless., Unless one happens to be A: a super secret agent employed by a non-governmental, non-existent agency; B; have a get-away cabin in the Appalachians; C. have a tom cat that hangs out with you at said cabin; D;  your cabin is located near the home of a local hermit and E: the Earth happens to be under invasion by alien brain slugs.

It’s mildly humorous because those of us who are enamored of Heinlein like to believe that we have learned many useful things from his writings.  Of course, it can’t be all that funny as the explanation took far more words than the actual joke, but then it’s Facebook so….

What this little episode did remind me of is the fact that, in many ways, Bob served as a surrogate grandfather for me.  Both of mine passed before I’d been on this planet five years, and as anyone who has read Time Enough For Love can tell you, a rascally, unrepentant and self-assured grandfather is a must have in the proper development of the creatures we euphemistically call little boys.

Stranger_in_a_Strange_Land_CoverAnd of course it then occurred to me that there were quite a few humorous (and not so humorous) lessons to be had from all of Heinlein’s books and, lacking the kind of social restraint that would undoubtedly have been passed on to me by a real-life grandfather, I have decided to share some of them with you.

For example:

Sitting on the bottom of a pool IS peaceful and quiet and would allow for some serious meditation time, but normal humans can’t hold their breath as long as Martian-raised humans.  (Stranger in a Strange Land)  (This “lesson” admittedly required a bit of personal experimentation.)


Never give your secret decoder ring to the first pretty girl you meet.  She might be a spy.  (Between Planets)


Always answer obscure want ads in obscure newspapers.  Doing so could open the door to interstellar adventure.  (Glory Road)

starmanOn the more practical life’s lessons side, how about:

When sleeping in a hobo camp, always use your guild books for a pillow.  (Starman Jones)

and, from the same source, perhaps one of my most cherished lessons:

Cleaning out litter boxes is a small price to pay for getting into space.

I could go on.  And I will.

A lesson that may only apply to those who had parental issues during childhood, although it may be appealing to a wider audience:

Join the military.  You’ll get a chance to boss your father around. If you live long enough. (Starship Troopers)

Somewhat resonant with today’s discussions on diversity and acceptance comes this lesson from Tunnel in the Sky

Always be suspicious of that ‘guy’ in armor.  It might not be a ‘guy’.  (Probably only useful to those of a conservative bent….)

tunnelDelving a bit deeper into the question of societal norms comes this unintended Heinlein lesson:

Even if you have a time machine, sleeping with your mother is not a good idea.  And if you do, for gossake’s don’t write about it! (To Sail Beyond the Sunset) (Of course, sleeping with yourself is an entirely different matter.)

(Most people think its icky, Bob.  Just sayin)

At this point it’s probably a good idea to lighten things up a bit.  So, how about this one:

Before you start keeping alien lifeforms as pets, find a partner who is a good jack-leg lawyer. (The Star Beast)

or this one:

Never look a gift spacesuit in the faceplate. (Have Spacesuit, Will Travel)

Drum roll, please.

have spacesuitOn a more serious note:

Impassioned defiance in the face of a Galactic Tribunal is a good legal strategy.  (Have Spacesuit, Will Travel)


If your wife and partner conspire against you in business, it’s best for that to happen after cold sleep and time travel have been invented. (The Door Into Summer)


Never, ever, ever teach a self-aware computer to have a sense of humor.  There could be serious unintended consequences. (The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress)


If you have a twin, make sure they’re the one that stays on Earth.  (Time for the Stars)

And on the slightly less practical but hey, if you need it, side come these final words:

If your last name is Howard (or you have red hair), get used to wearing kilts. (Which are great for concealed carry.)(Methuselah’s Children)

Do not let your alcoholic wife or your dead-beat son know you have a bomb shelter. (Farnham’s Freehold)

If you have a secret compartment behind your belly button, don’t let strangers put things in it. (Friday)

requiemand, finally, a lesson that has become increasingly important for me, personally:

Don’t wait until you’re old to commandeer a flight to the Moon. (Requiem)



Related articles


  1. Good article! Lots of Heinlein, I like that 🙂 I tweeted it.
    Starman Jones is one of my very favorites.
    (And the forum gets a little preachy from the left sometimes too 🙂 ).

  2. Yes! And finally in one easy to use list so you don’t have to read all those entertaining books, falling so far behind in your work that you tell your life to tell your editor that you were kidnapped.

    Not that this would ever happen to me…

    1. Ron; those “digs” were light-hearted in nature and merely observation of the group as it presents itself publicly. They also reflect my personal belief (based on having now been reading RAH for nearly 50 years) that those with a right-wing, and particularly libertarian bent, often treat RAH as their patron saint. In contrast to the fact that both the man and his works were all over the place in terms of politics.

      The left (again, my personal take) often seems to have bought into that characterization and (as I’m sure you are aware) have leveled quite a few attacks against his works as being misogynistic, homophobic and racist (thus the charge from the right that “Heinlein could never win a Hugo today”).

      Personally, I doubt that would be true. Heinlein amply demonstrated his ability to change focus, style and theme (evidenced by his breakthrough into the “slick” publications in the 50s and near abandonment of the traditional SF field at the same time).

      I believe that both “sides” are wrong in their takes and characterizations. Heinlein was very much “his own man” (well illustrated by the Patterson biography); he did what he thought was right and proper – even when it was self-contradictory. I am VERY certain that if he were around to today he would object, strenuously, to being used as a political foil by anyone.

      One example that I find most telling: during the big Viet Nam war kerfuffle (that intruded into the SF community to the extent of dual full page political ads in Galaxy magazine), Heinlein came down on the side of the US remaining in Viet Nam. But not for political reasons. For moral reasons. For reasons that echoed his theme in Starship Troopers – that when you make a personal commitment, you are obligated to see it through, if only to remain true to ones own sense of responsibility and character.

      Ask him if we should ever have been involved to begin with and I’m pretty certain he’d have quoted the Sicilian from Princess Bride: “never get involved in a land war in Asia”. But that was entirely beside the point since we (the US) had already gotten involved and it was our duty to see things through.

      Yes, I could have been perhaps a bit more balanced with something like “It’s tough to be a peacock when little girls can beat you at chess” (Starman Jones) or some such – and I could have transitioned the post into a discussion of Farnham’s Freehold, the book that seems to have drawn the most ire from the left as being completely racist, a contention I disagree with (oh, it has overt racism in it, but I believe that Heinlein’s presentation of black society in that novel was a vision of how white society could be viewed from a black perspective, but that’s fodder for a dissertation, not a humorous piece).

      So, bottom line: Heinlein does get appropriated by the right and does get castigated by the left and I’m convinced that neither view is right. Even twisted, his works have a lot to teach everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.