Reading Heinlein: Part 1, Introduction

I’ve been thinking a lot about Heinlein recently.

I’ve been wanting to write more science fiction, and to write properly in any genre, you need really to understand the current debates about the literature, so as well as reading SF books, which I’ve done all my life, for the last couple of years I’ve been reading SF criticism. And one of the most controversial figures at the moment is Robert A Heinlein, despite him having died nearly thirty years ago.

The reason for this is simple — Heinlein was an immensely influential writer, and an immensely *political* writer, and he has been taken on as a totem by the kind of people I talked about in the series of posts I did earlier this year on the “Sad Puppy” Hugo slate (1, 2, 3, 4).

So I’ve been thinking about this, and I’ve also been reading a book I picked up a couple of years ago, Robert A Heinlein In Dialogue With His Century: Vol 1 by William H Patterson. This is an extremely… thorough… biography by someone who clearly has a near-worshipful admiration of his subject and a desire to get every. single. fact. in — if you’re the kind of person who wants to know the details of Heinlein’s multiple haemmoroid operations, then this is the book for you.

And all the thinking about Heinlein has made me think about my own relationship to his work. In some ways, Heinlein has influenced my political thought as much as any author — but the Heinlein that influenced me was not the Heinlein that influenced the Mil-SF writers, the writer of novels about Space Marines In SPAAACE, the man whose politics became, frankly, utterly deranged from terror at the existence of atomic weapons. From about 1950 on, Heinlein’s politics were driven by nationalism, militarism, and anti-communism, to the exclusion of almost all else — he wasn’t a fascist, as some of his detractors say, but his politics certainly came from the same impulses. Post-1950 Heinlein was definitely more culturally influential (three of the artists I’m dealing with in my book on 60s LA music did songs inspired by him — The Door Into Summer by the Monkees, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Jimmy Webb, and Triad by the Byrds), but I find much — though not all — of his work during his commercial peak to be shrill, hackneyed, and the product of “thinking” not that far from the Tea Party.

No, the Heinlein that influenced me was the Heinlein of the 30s and 40s, the pulp writer who told short, tight, stories about the impact of technology on society, and whose political ideas were shaped by Upton Sinclair and Bernard Shaw. *MY* Heinlein was a Libertarian Socialist whose biggest issues were monopolistic corporations and endemic government corruption. MY Heinlein was the one who warned of the dangers of fundamentalist Christian theocracy allying with right-wing racist authoritarianism in 1941.

I always enjoyed those stories, although I’ve not read them in twenty years, and they influenced me away from statist socialism towards the extreme left-libertarian Liberalism that is my current best model for how the world should work. Those stories — the “Future History” stories that all fit into one timeline — are for me the things he did that stood up the best.

But I’ve also had a fascination for the work he did at the other end of his career — the World As Myth novels. I found most of these nearly unreadable when I read them in my early twenties, and that’s the general consensus among SF fans as well — Heinlein’s last few books are generally considered to suffer from the lack of an editor, and many people have also said that his cardiac problems during this period led to a lack of oxygen to the brain, which can’t have helped his writing.

But these books, while generally considered… well… a bit crap… are also at least attempts at doing precisely the kind of thing I most like, Menippean Satire (I know, I’ve banged on about this a lot recently). They’re whimsical novels about the nature of reality, quantum physics, whether we create or discover when writing, and in general the kind of stuff I’m interested in.

(Wikipedia’s description of them as “involving time travel, parallel dimensions, free love, voluntary incest, and a concept that Heinlein named pantheistic solipsism, or World as Myth: the theory that universes are created by the act of imagining them, so that somewhere (for example) the Land of Oz is real” could be a description of my perfect book, with the exception of the incest thing, one of the more weird, repellent, obsessions in Heinlein’s books from the early 60s on…)

It’s been ten or fifteen years since I’ve read them and I’m quite interested to see if they are as bad as I remember them, or if they’re as good as the version of them I can imagine.

Handily, these World As Myth stories feature a lot of the same characters and events as the Future History stories, and so the two can be seen, in a way, as a single body of work (in much the same way as Asimov went back to the robot and Foundation stories around the same time and tied them together).

So I’m planning on reading through all the Future History/World As Myth stories, and writing about them here, just to clarify my own thoughts on Heinlein, or at least the parts of his work that interest me. I don’t claim that I’ll necessarily have any profound insights — but I might — but I’ll look at every story.

Handily, a few months back, Orion republished the collection The Past Through Tomorrow in an expanded edition as part of its SF Gateway series of omnibuses. This means that all the Future History stories and novels are available in one volume (with the exception of The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. So for this I’m going to read through and post, a few stories at a time, til I’ve covered that book, then go on to The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and then to Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, Job: A Comedy Of Justice, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

Or at least, that’s my intention. If I find I have nothing to say about these books, or that they’re all truly terrible, I’ll give up. But by skipping the mid-period dullness, I suspect that if nothing else the books I’m looking at — by the untouchable God of conservative SF writers, but before and after the period they care about — will provide an interesting perspective on the debates about this man whose ghost still haunts the debates in SF a hundred and seven years after his birth…

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8 Responses to Reading Heinlein: Part 1, Introduction

  1. londonKdS says:

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this and didn’t mention it, but Patterson’s biography became notorious at the time it was published for its lack of interest in examining the historical accuracy of various claims made by Heinlein and his wife in later years about his past.

    And, to me, Starship Troopers is fascist in a deep way that is not affected by any of the debates about how the human society depicted actually works and whether Heinlein’s explanations about the world-building in interviews and essays match up to the actual content of the novel. My huge problem with it is that it explicitly depicts a universe in which it is, literally, impossible on grounds of scarcity for two sentient cultures to exist in contiguous locations without genocidal war breaking out, and exults in this as an opportunity for Darwinian evolution. Which is, bluntly and flatly, a National Socialist position.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I wasn’t aware, but it doesn’t surprise me. The tone towards Heinlein’s second wife, in particular, seems far more like a bloke talking about his “crazy bitch of an ex” than like a serious biographer.
      And, assuming your characterisation of the book is right (I haven’t read it in a long time, not since shortly after the film came out, and don’t remember that being in it, but I was hardly the most intelligent of readers in my mid teens) then I agree, that does make the book outright fascist, not just hard-right populist.

  2. plok says:

    A friend of mine tried to read The Number Of The Beast, and ended by throwing it against a wall. I read Job: A Comedy Of Justice, and I ended by throwing it out the window.

    So good luck!

    Heinlein is a very interesting fellow, though. As it happens, I’ve got The Past Through Tomorrow sitting right here at my elbow, so maybe I’ll read along with you a bit.

    You should read (I assume: re-read) the juvies, too! Hmm, where’s my copy of Rocket Ship Galileo…

  3. Pingback: Weekend Links, 17/08/14: Caricatures + complexity

  4. Kit says:

    From my memory of reading everything as a kid/teen, Stranger and I Will Fear No Evil feel more of an authorial contiguity with Number Of The Beast and Cat Who Walks than Job does; the latter seemed to be Heinlein deliberately trying to work in a style distinct from the one he had developed / fallen into over the “recent” fat-length novels. (12yo me was not convinced that the result was worth the effort – I remember re-reading it later specifically to see if its merits would reveal themselves better.)

    Really looking forward to your thoughts on everything covered!

    • Kit says:

      (PS! just realised I’m commenting for the first time all year / since I’ve been home / since speaking at ThoBub – if you’re still interested in tracking down Benny NAs, drop me an email.)

  5. darquehex says:

    “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is one of my favorite books. I had trouble getting through much of his later work and stopped halfway through the first “World as Myth” novel. I enjoy the ideas but the narrative was often more trouble than it was worth. I believe “Stranger in a Strange Land” holds up though if I understand correctly you’ll be excluding that one.

    Looking forward to reading these, hope you see it through!

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