I’m a Heinlein fan. That’s not to say I like everything he wrote. I believe “I Will Fear No Evil” is remarkably bad. I know of several other of his books that I don’t think very highly of. But a lot of what he wrote, especially during his heyday was very good. And comparing him to those writing at the time when he came on the scene it is striking how much better he was.
So why was that? What made him so good? First of all, I think Heinlein happened to be a very intelligent man. Secondly, he was well educated and this included the fact that he had an upper middle-class upbringing that included good literature. Thirdly, he had a decent work ethic. Between these things he probably brought much more to the table than most of his peers. And finally, I think he modelled his stories not on other science fiction authors but rather on successful authors in the wider literary world. And I think this has been recognized for a long time. Many years ago, I read some literary criticism that posited that Heinlein had taken Kipling’s British Raj and mapped it onto the Solar System or some such thing. Another critic said that Heinlein created America as Science Fiction. While I don’t think either of these premises are completely true I think they hint at the fact that Heinlein wanted to take science fiction out of its ghetto and make it interesting to the grown-ups.
And to a great extent, he succeeded. Especially in his early future history stories, the feel is very much of a mid-twentieth-century American dynamism. It combines wit, enthusiasm and confidence. It belongs with such other products of the time as John Houston’s motion pictures The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He has turned the American Century into the source for his characters and their ethos. And in some of his stories like Citizen of the Galaxy and Double Star, Heinlein did borrow some of the flavor of Kipling’s British Empire.
But really all this shows is that Heinlein wanted his stories to belong to the Anglo-American tradition of storytelling. He recognized good work and he incorporated the spirit of the best works from his time and of the literary past that he enjoyed and projected them on the future.
Some might say that he thereby lacked originality. This may be somewhat true. But it is also universal. Even James Joyce when he wrote his stream of consciousness in Ulysses is using Homer for his plot basis. And to the extent that Ulysses is original it is also a failure as literature. Every writer borrows from the past. He has to. As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. The trick is making it new and making it your own. I think Heinlein was well within fair usage.
Coming back to the question of what Heinlein was, I believe he was the right man at the right time. He was an intelligent, literate American at just the moment in the American Century when science fiction was becoming mainstream and relevant to the culture. Atomic bombs and space craft were crossing over from science fiction to front page headlines. Science fiction readers were seeing their stories become respectable and even literary. Legitimate periodicals included some of the more refined writers between the glossy covers.
Will we see his like again? I would have to say no. Not so much because he was some towering genius, but because the times have changed. No one would mistake our present culture for 1930s America. Even in the depths of the Great Depression there was an optimism and solidarity that just doesn’t exist anymore. Authors today reflect that despair. And maybe that is interesting to some, a sort of decline of the Roman Empire sensibility, but I don’t think it lends itself to good storytelling. Even in the most realistic story I think you need something beyond fatalism and ennui. Otherwise it feels like the story is not even worth your time to read.
But, of course, maybe a change is just around the corner and an American renaissance is on the horizon. Well, if that’s the case, I better reread Green Hills of Earth. Delilah and the Space Riggers? Sure why not?