Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

Patterson Heinlein biography: Not to be trusted on details

Unlike John Scalzi, I didn’t find all that much new about Heinlein in the Patterson biography. I’d already read Asimov’s autobiographies (three of them) and Pohl’s biography, and Grumbles From the Grave (Heinlein’s selected letters) and I knew he’d been a struggling writer. I even knew about Leslyn’s alcoholism and the end of that marriage. I was familiar with the broad outlines of his life and career from Expanded Universe, and I’ve even read alternate history stories where he was cured of TB and became military dictator of the U.S. So what I was looking for here was more than the facts—a little insight into the development of his personality, into why he made the choices he did, wrote the stories he did.

I already mentioned that this is a very old fashioned kind of biography, so I didn’t get any of that.

Patterson’s biography is also riddled with tiny insignificant errors of the kind that make me lose trust. When Patterson calls Edward VIII a “boy king” (he was 42) and says Churchill made the “owed so much” speech at the time when he actually made the “fight them on the beaches” speech, it doesn’t actually matter—these are tiny peripheral details to the story of Heinlein. Yet, if we’re to see Heinlein as representative of his era, a “Forrest Gump” as Mitch puts it, getting the era right does matter. If I can’t trust Patterson on details that I know backwards and forwards and inside out, how can I trust him on matters that are new to me?

Patterson mentions Heinlein’s time in bohemian New York in the summer of 1930, and says he “would naturally have met Edna St. Vincent Millay”. Well, no he wouldn’t, not that summer, she was home upstate with her husband Eugen, working on the sonnets that would become Fatal Interview. She hadn’t spent much time in Greenwich Village being a bohemian for several years before that. I know this because I recently read an excellent biography of Millay, Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty. I recommend it to people who are interested in American writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

None of this really matters, as long as Patterson has got the main details right. Nobody is reading it as an introduction to the historical period — although I read biographies as introductions to historical periods all the time. But Heinlein himself had a great belief in getting the facts right. He and Ginny once spent all weekend working out ballistic orbits, by hand, for Space Cadet, a book for boys who wouldn’t have known the difference if they’d fudged it. But he got it right, every little bit of it, because getting the details right matters, it helps the reader suspend their disbelief if the things they know are right. When I see things I know are wrong, how can I suspend my disbelief? Heinlein deserves better than this.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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