Robert A. Heinlein: A Retrospective
By Oliver Johnson
Posted on June 25, 2015 in Books with tags Robert A. Heinlein, Science Fiction
Few science fiction writers have divided opinion so widely as Robert A. Heinlein. Along with Asimov and Clarke, he was one of the trio of Golden Age authors who in the 40s took the genre out of the pulp arena into one of literary high seriousness. Of the trio, many see Heinlein as the most influential as his novels about future worlds were free of jargon and written in a colloquially familiar manner. Of this three-way pantheon, Heinlein stands as the ‘dean of science fiction’ probably because of the prescriptive nature of much of his writing from the middle period onwards, in which father figures take the heroes of each book in hand and guide their spiritual and political evolution.
Heinlein also stands for much more than his writing: like Asimov and Clarke he was a pathfinder in the age of space discovery. He served on government spacer advisory programmes, influenced Buzz Aldrin to become an astronaut, and narrated the first moon walk with Walter Cronkite on CBS. He has both a crater on Mars and an asteroid named after him. His influence on popular culture and language is huge; for example, he invented or popularised words and phrases which have become a part of our lexicon, including ‘grok’, ‘waldo’, and ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’. A skilled naval engineer, he popularised or invented hardware and software which is integral to modern life, including robotic arms.
Despite Heinlein’s popular and populist appeal, the mouthpieces of his fiction frequently espouse extreme libertarian views. Self-determination is their credo, the championing of the strong and competent against the spoon-fed cronies and spongers dependant on centralised government: ‘An armed society is a polite society,’ Beyond this Horizon; ‘Every law that was ever written opened up a new way to graft,’ Red Planet. Critics argue that his credo favours those strong enough to look after themselves and condemns the weak. Perhaps his views can be best summarized in his diktat, ‘Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong – but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong,’ Double Star. Heinlein lived for debate and his books are full of ferocious, aphoristic exchanges of views.
His reputation as a political and personal contrarian often seems to obscure the Robert Heinlein known and beloved by his friends, family and legions of fans. Heinlein was unfailingly generous and public-spirited. He lent money to Philip K Dick when he was struggling with illness and taxes, and hours of his time to Ray Bradbury and Jerry Pournelle at the beginning of their writing careers. He adopted a utilitarian approach to writing advice:
- You must write.
- You must finish what you start.
- You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order.
- You must put it on the market.
- You must keep it on the market until sold.
Heinlein is also famous for the phrase ‘don’t pay it back, pay it forward’ – meaning, take the generosity of others and when you are past the hump yourself, and be equally generous to other disadvantaged people.
Heinlein also loved cats. ‘How you behave towards cats here below determines your status in Heaven,’ he wrote in To Sail Beyond the Sunset. ‘If you would know a man, observe how he treats a cat,’ he suggested in The Door into Summer. ‘Anyone who considers protocol unimportant has never dealt with a cat,’ he stated in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Clearly, cats were a major preoccupation of his life.
Because of Heinlein’s interest in people and societies, his work falls into what is sometimes called ‘life-style’ or ‘social’ science fiction: big on people and their interactions, and lighter on gadgets and tech – though still full to the brim with techy invention.
The three recently reissued Hodder books are an excellent introduction to his work.
All that can be safely said of Heinlein is that he was a man who defied – and defies – easy categorisation. He was a right-wing anarchist, a social Darwinist, an enemy of big government, a friend of free love and an anti-racist in the middle of the Civil Rights upheaval. The contradictory nature of his work is illustrated by the fact that it has been adopted by hippies and military academies, by atheists and deists, by fans of hard science and social science fiction, and both embraced and rejected by feminists. In the end the only way to make up your mind about Heinlein’s place in the SF pantheon is to read his work for yourself, as he would have wished.