Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

Heinlein: Forward-looking diversity advocate or sexist bigot? Yes

Charlie Stross writes:

[W]hile working on the novel that was to become Space Cadet, Heinlein warned his agent that the inclusion of an ethnically diverse cast was not only deliberate—it was non-negotiable, and if an editor requested the removal of the Jewish character, Blassingame (the agent) was to take the book elsewhere.

This is the letter Heinlein wrote to his agent about his wishes (from Learning Curve, the new Heinlein biography):

I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of the three boys is a “must” and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism. The use of a diverse group . . . is part of my intent; it must not be changed. . . . I am as disinterested as a referee but I want to get over an object lesson in practical democracy.

This is all admirable, but let’s keep in mind what’s missing from this cast: Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions. Heinlein’s book was enormously ethnically diverse in that it included the full variety of American Judeo-Christian boys.

And even the notion that the ethnically diverse boys are “developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds” is a little creepy. Because America isn’t a melting pot where everyone is the same as everyone else, it’s more like a stew. We work together, play together, and shop together, but we have different religions, and sometimes wear different clothing and speak different languages. Often the children of immigrants will be bilingual, speaking native, unaccented, perfect English while out in the world but their parents’ language at home.

Also missing from Space Cadet: Girls. In another letter, Heinlein describes his formula for writing YA fiction (or, as it was called then, “boys’ books”). One element of the formula: “No real love interest and female characters should be only walk-ons.” Because God forbid the book should get girl-cooties or something. In Red Planet, one of the heroes of the book says, “Now, as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too.”

It’s that kind of thing that makes Heinlein’s attitudes toward women controversial in fandom. On the one hand, his books are populated by women engineers, women politicians, and even, in Friday, a deadly female secret agent. On the other hand: Babies? Cooking? WTF?

Jo Walton and Pamela Dean write about Heinlein’s attitude toward girls and women, and how they felt as girls reading Heinlein. And Walton, who comes from Wales and lives in Montreal, writes about how she felt as a non-American reading the staunchly American Heinlein, who espoused the belief, at times, that Americans were a better breed than people elsewhere in the world. Heinlein could be ethnocentric sometimes. (I exclude Heinlein’s comment in Time Enough for Love where he says, “Vancouver was a part of the United States where the people were so clever that they never paid taxes to Washington.” That’s not ethnocentrism, it’s just funny.)

I do not mean to be critical of either Charlie or Heinlein here, because in fact it was admirable for Heinlein to insist on inclusion of a Jewish character in his book at a time when anti-Semitism was still commonplace. Also, a German-American a few years after the end of World War II. And Heinlein did it at a time when he was broke, and could have been forgiven for knuckling under to editors’ demands to whiten up the book. As a Jewish American myself, I’m grateful to Heinlein for doing his part to tear down barriers. By the time I was growing up 20 years after the publication of Heinlein’s novel, anti-Semitism had all but vanished in the parts of America I have inhabited, popping up only occasionally in circumstances that are more weird than scary.

Heinlein was admirable in that he transcended many of the ethnic and gender prejudices of his time, but he was human in that he didn’t transcend all of them. He was born in the Edwardian Era, and died before the invention of the World Wide Web. We’re a future generation now, and looking back we judge him. Future generations will judge us, too.


Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.

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