Heinlein: What’s the Deal with Him?

Heinlein Part 2 – The Juveniles

So, here we are five years into the Puppy Era and we all know what we don’t like.  We don’t want revolutionary intersectionalist gender studies diatribes disguised as SF&F message fiction.  Agreed.  But for the sake of reminding us what we do like I’ve decided to start dusting off the dinosaurs.  I’m going to reach back into the Pre-Cambrian Epoch and analyze some of the better fossils currently on display on my admittedly antediluvian book shelf.  First on the list Robert Anson Heinlein (aka the big enchilada).

Anyone who attempts to review Heinlein is in for trouble.  Everyone either loves or hates the man.  Some people actually are able to do both at the same time.  But few are lukewarm.  Full disclosure, I grew up on his juveniles.  I read “Red Planet,” “The Rolling Stones,” “Farmer in the Sky” and the rest of his kids books like some kind of junkie.  When I ran out of them I started trying out the rest of his peers.  As a kid I defined all other science fiction by how it stood next to the grand master. In my mind none of them measured up.  To my young eyes he was a literary god.

As time went on I came in contact with his novels and short stories for adults.  I read his future history stories and found that world interesting and to my optimistic mind plausible.  “The Green Hills of Earth,” “Methusaleh’s Children,” “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” all confirmed my opinion that here was a great storyteller.  I was convinced that picking up something by RAH was a guaranteed good read.

As I grew I found that Heinlein was changing too.  His books became darker.  Starship Trooper although absolutely first rate Heinlein was a serious war story wrapped up in a philosophy lesson.  Farnham’s Freehold is just plain grim.  Glory Road is an interesting but puzzling work.  Heinlein was still enjoyable but he had moved away from the sunnier climes of the past and allowed the dystopian events of the Cold War to color his universe.  By the time of “Stranger in a Strange Land” we are in a new landscape.  RAH has abandoned simple stories and now approaches questions of religion, spitituality and sexuality that sometimes seem bizarre.  At this point I note that “heinleinian” qualities of the stories are still present but the world view has shifted.  It reflects the changes that had occurred between the United States of the nineteen forties and that of the nineteen sixties.  Interestingly these changes were actually forecast by Heinlein in his Future History timeline.  He predicted the nineteen sixties would be called “The Crazy Years.”  Was he ever right!

So , where are we?  Well, Heinlein , the Baby Boomers and I have all transitioned from the heroic, optimistic stories of the forties into the somewhat jaded, realistic stories of the sixties.  So far I’m still with him.  I still wait expectantly for the next big read from the king.  And then he published “I Will Fear No Evil” (IWFNE).  Holy Crap!  It’s over forty years since I read that disaster and even that much time hasn’t softened the feelings of outrage I feel whenever I think of the pain I experienced trying to plow through this awful pile of garbage.  When I finished it I was convinced that either Heinlein had died and a ghost writer was brought in to write this abomination or that he had ingested some really bad LSD and had completely lost his mind.  Either way, the world of guaranteed good Heinlein fiction was over.

In retrospect it turned out that the publication of this book coincided with a very serious health crisis in Heinlein’s life.  The book was published without the careful and time-consuming edits and rewrites that were RAH’s standard operating procedure for publication.  So it’s possible that Heinlein could have rewritten IWFNE and made it into a good book.  But I don’t think it’s true.  In addition to the awful writing exhibited in the book, the dystopian world portrayed, although frighteningly close to some aspects of modern life, is nothing that most people want to read about.

What I think went wrong with Heinlein was that he had extrapolated the trends he saw in his world and came up with a future that although uncomfortably accurate, wasn’t compatible with his audience’s tastes.  The science fiction readers of that time tended to be optimistic.  We wanted a future that was better than the world we lived in.

After the debacle of IWFNE there was a long hiatus before the next Heinlein book appeared.  In the mean-time I moved on to other authors.  Tolkien and his Middle Earth deeply interested me and other fantasy writers and works caught my attention.  By the time, Heinlein came out with Expanded Universe, I no longer thought much about his potential for providing me with good reading material.  Expanded Universe is a book that contains both short fiction works and non-fiction concerning politics, world events and practical philosophy.  It was full of interesting observations and insights into Heinlein and his world.  It managed to renew my interest in what RAH might have next in store.

At this point it was nineteen eighty.  These were optimistic times and an old-fashioned Heinlein story was exactly what would fit in.  His next novel was “The Number of the Beast.”  Essentially the book is sort of an elaborate insider’s joke.  It is full of allusions, puns and puzzles that relate to Heinlein, his works and his philosophy on writing and life.  It is not exactly a page turner.  Not being in a frame of mind to savor his meta-work I resigned myself to taking each Heinlein publication as an unknown quantity to be evaluated as found.  His following books were mostly a mixture of narrative and dispositive philosophical material.  An exception was the book Friday which was more or less a traditional story.  It tied into characters and ideas found in the short story Gulf.  It has several interesting characters and concepts.  In some ways, it is a throwback to his middle period.  But it does not match the optimistic energy of that time.  His description of the balkanized North American states produces in me a melancholy mood.  And the portrayal of inevitable catastrophe for Earth is bleak.  The prospect of survival on other planets sounds more like a retreat in the face of inevitable doom.

So, am I being fair to Heinlein?  Absolutely not.  The truth is that I started off reading books that RAH wrote for people of my age.  Then I read stories by him that were patterned after the material that mid-century editors felt were acceptable for the American audience of that time.  The criteria weren’t identical to the restrictions that existed for motion pictures under the Hays Code but there was definitely a less nihilistic feel to literature from that period than what came later.  Later on Heinlein felt less restricted in portraying the more negative aspects of his vision.  And it is also true that he had some quite controversial opinions on various subjects including sexuality.

Taking these factors into account, my disappointment with much of his later output was inevitable.  Some of that has to do with the disparity in age between us.  He was born more than fifty years before me and his life does not closely mirror mine.  I have often thought that it is time for me to re-read his later stories.  In all fairness, other than “I Will Fear No Evil,” I believe I will probably find all his other books quite enjoyable now that I no longer expect to get “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” every time.

So, that is an outline of my collision with Robert Heinlein through several decades of reading him.  I will follow this up with further remarks on the various categories of Heinlein literature that I admire most.  But I will conclude this survey by stating that Robert A. Heinlein was the most important author during several decades of my formative years.  He is the Grand Master of Science Fiction.  Whether that is important or not I leave to the reader to decide.

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Fred Mora
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Fred Mora

Yes, the post-stroke books were a shock for those of us who grew up on his juveniles. Rest assured that your feelings were shared by countless RAH addicts.

To this day, when browsing a book store, I sometimes catch myself looking at the “H” letter in alphabetically sorted SF bookshelves. But there will be no more new releases. And “For Us the Living” does not count. There was a reason while RAH left this book buried.

Billy Hollis
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From the later period, Friday was pretty good, and so was To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Neither approached Mistress, but then I think it’s the second best SF novel ever written. But I never thought that badly about I Will Fear No Evil. It had some challenging ideas in it, and I liked Johann/Joan Smith and Jake Salomon as the main characters. It wasn’t polished, because of the editing problems you mentioned, but it wasn’t dreck. I reread it last year, and enjoyed it again. My “can’t get through it again” work is Number of the Beast. It’s too disconnected,… Read more »

RC Oberlender
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RC Oberlender

I grew up with RAH in much the same manner. I managed to correspond with him in his later years, he and Virginia replied when I told him that ST caused me to go Army and Airborne Infantry. I think my time as a drill sergeant was made easier because I know what and why Zim did what he did.

The book not mentioned in the article that also heavily influenced me was Citizen of the Galaxy. Values count.

Donald Dunlap
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Donald Dunlap

Had almost exactly the same feeling as you about Heinlein’s later books. Fear No Evil, Number Of The Beast and The Cat, etc, left me pretty cold. But in my mind Friday was almost back to his normal standards.
Somehow, I have never read “Have Spacesuit” even though I know it is out there. Still need to track it down, I suppose

B Woodman
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B Woodman

I grew up as many of you have already said, reading Heinlein’s juvies in grade school (Rolling Stones was written the year I was born, so it wasn’t that old when I was old enough to read it). I have enjoyed all RAH’s works, I took them as they came. Some were stand-alone, many interconnected somewhere in the timeline (this IS sci-fi). But there are two, a first and a last, that are seldom mentioned. I am fortunate to have them both. The first is “For Us The Living, A Comedy of Customs”, written about 1939, rejected and set aside,… Read more »