Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Robert A. Heinlein, Rest in Peace if You Can

I'm in the process of reading Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele. Too many other demands on my time to read it quickly. However, I'll probably save that for the NSS Book Review
site, anyway. Steele is a two-time Hugo Award winner and a winner of the Robert Heinlein Award for Best New Writer. This is a nice segue to my next topic for the evening, as a recent article about Heinlein has appeared on the net recently:,0,6886058.story?coll=la-books-headlines

Then John Scalzi, another Robert A. Heinlein (RAH) fan, wrote in response to the L.A. Times on his

And while I won't go into the details of the e-chats, I got emails from a variety of space-minded friends on the mixed legacy of RAH, expressing their opinions pro or con. It seems that anyone who has had a passing interest in space exploration or hippiedom has encountered Heinlein's work. Space fans tend to gravitate toward the short fiction RAH wrote pre-World War II and in the late '40s for the
Saturday Evening Post or his juveniles. The hippie types have glommed onto Stranger in a Strange Land (birthplace of "grok" and inspiration to Charles Manson), which for the space-loving fans just about marks the downturn of RAH's career. After that, his books get more hedonistic, much longer, and nowhere near as coherent.

I am more of a '40s guy now, so The Past Through Tomorrow usually gets a good re-reading every few years. Such was not always the case. Back when I was more socially sensitive (i.e. liberal), I didn't read RAH because I bought the schtick that he was a "fascist" of some sort, as well as a sexist. The fascist accusation derives mostly from his pro-military book Starship Troopers, which was transmogrified into a satirical
movie under the same title. There are several messages to be found in Troopers, among them an excellent lecture on what it means to be a "juvenile delinquent." However, the primary point that I got from the book is, "Join the military and it will make a man out of you." The message of the blatantly fascist Paul Verhoeven movie is, "Join the military, and it will turn you into a macho sh!thead fanatic." As anyone who truly understands masculinity will tell you, there is a major difference between the two, but that appears to have been lost on Hollyweird.

Another important facet of the book, which is mostly lost in the sheer violence of the movie, is that the only way one can gain "the franchise" (aka the right to vote) is to prove your worthiness by serving your country through the military or federal service for three years. The idea being, if you are willing to prove your willingness to put your countrymen's needs ahead of your own, you've earned the right to vote. From such a system comes an emphasis on duty and self-sacrifice that is truly misunderstood in this "shop 'til you drop" society. "Give up my rights for others? How fascist!"

The sexism rap is not as easy to shake. RAH was born in 1909 (died 1988), and attended Annapolis in the late 1920s. That was not necessarily a liberal time, though RAH was politically liberal up through the end of World War II. Nevertheless, RAH's male characters display mostly the daddy's-in-charge attitude, with the women being at best some combination between
Myrna Loy and a female version of MacGyver (his second wife Virginia was an engineer). Other women come across as hanky-wringing, apron-string-tying ninnies determined to keep their men civilized or domesticated. Some of the later female characters have a randy (read: slutty) streak reminsicent of Brittany Spears.

The only fiction book of his post-Stranger career that I've read all the way through is Friday, and that book starts off on the wrong foot--a woman falling in love with her rapist--and swiftly turns downhill from there.

Still, it is important to understand what Heinlein accomplished as a science fiction writer. He almost single-handedly invented the genre. As a military-educated engineer, he brought a technical realism and believability that placed his work far above the "pulps" of the early '30s, when neither was in much abundance. Because his approach was so new, he could--and did--explore the basic SF stories in ways that had never been seen before, though they would be duplicated many times in the years after he started writing.

RAH's range was broad, from power fantasy to military science fiction to cultural/sociological SF to time travel and psychological fiction. And if his characters did not always employ the enlightened sensibilities of today, one might at least thank him for forcing SF writers to know their stuff before jumping in willy-nilly. In a way, he spoiled SF for the pulp and potboiler writers who came before him and the struggling artists who came after him because he instilled the genre with a sense that the author had to know what he was talking about before sitting in front of the typewriter or, now, computer.

For good or ill, I came to RAH's writing after the man had already died, so I blew any chance of meeting him at a science fiction convention. However, if you come across an author whose writing is said to evoke Heinlein, that should not be a sign to toss the book aside as fascist, sexist bilge. Rather, one should expect that whatever you read is likely to be informed, plausible, and a ripping good yarn. There was a time when people read books for entertainment, not just their political "message." It is good to keep that thought in mind when approaching the works of Robert Anson Heinlein, for in the end, that's what he sat before the typewriter to do.

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