Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

The right kind of girl

Regarding the Heinlein biography, Pamela Dean said:

I was sure, even early on in my reading, that he wasn’t actually talking to me. I didn’t belong in his worlds. Though as an adult this quality sometimes made me want to pull out my hair, as a child I found it delicious. I was eavesdropping on secrets that I wasn’t meant to know: as a girl, the wrong kind of girl, bad at mathematics, repulsed by babies, dubious of marriage, almost, at times, a Luddite. I was getting all the secrets of a universe I would never enter, a universe more fantastical than that of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Austen, and Carroll put together. There was an inexplicable joy in this that was hugely addictive.

I’m terrible at mathematics, but I always felt that in the future that would be one of the things that would get engineered away. The first time I saw a pocket calculator I thought “I knew it!” And I wasn’t an engineer, but that would also be one of those things—I mean, I could be. Okay, I was a classics major, but I didn’t have a problem with the concept.

The odd thing is that I never felt like the wrong kind of girl for Heinlein. I didn’t feel as if I was eavesdropping, I felt that I was being confided in. As a teenager I was very used to being the exception—I could force male company to take me seriously even though I was a girl. In my imagination, I’d make misogynists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton let me in by this rule. Oh, they’d say, girls suck, yes, well, but this is Jo. By sheer force of my natural Jo-ness, I’d make them take me seriously. I am now, at forty-five, rather weary of the effort required, of the ongoing necessity to assert this in order to be taken seriously. It gets awfully tiresome. Even at fifteen, I could see there was a problem with this… but if all the other girls in my world insisted on turning into typical teenage girls, what else could I do?

But with Heinlein I never felt my gender was an issue. Girls were not invisible to him. Girls existed, and could be on the moon. And I did want babies, not now, but when I was grown up. How else would we carry on the human race, after all? In most of what I read, you could ask what was missing from this picture—no women, no people who weren’t white, no families, no older people, no kids, no poor people. Heinlein had all that. Poor people. People with ethnic names. People with different skin color. Girls not just as love objects, but grandmothers. Not just boy scouts, but little bratty sisters. Not just Kip, but Pee Wee. I might have asked why the girls couldn’t have been front and centre (I didn’t like Podkayne either), but then he wrote Friday.

Heinlein told me that it was actually okay for women to like sex. I may be dim, but I’d never have figured that out from most of what I was reading. He told me they could be radio operators on space stations and the work would get done more efficiently. And the biography told me he really believed that, when he was recruiting for the lab where he was doing war work he went to women’s colleges to find engineering graduates. He told me I didn’t always have to crash my way through closed doors to get myself into the story. I believed in him because I felt he believed in me—the potential me, the one who would be an engineer, and know how to change diapers and plan invasions, the best me I could be.

Where I felt he wasn’t talking to me was where I was excluded for being insufficiently American. That’s something Patterson made me feel even more. Heinlein loved America and was patriotic and emotional about it, but he also understood that he was living on a planet. Patterson doesn’t seem to imagine any non-US readers for this biography. Heinlein knew that Americans came in all shapes and sizes and colors and genders, but as for the rest of the world, he thought “the cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way.” That’s hurtful for a European to read. Heinlein wrote about people with different skin color, but never ever with different culture—Juan Rico is as assimilated as people can possibly be, and so are all Heinlein’s characters.

I wrote to Heinlein in 1980, a very grumpy letter, when I found out that Expanded Universe wouldn’t be published outside the U.S. “You can’t stop me getting it anyway,” I wrote. “I am saving up for a ticket. Anyway, I can’t imagine you could say anything worse about Americans than that they have a new Heinlein book and won’t share it. But in case you care, it is being serialised in Destinies, and I can buy that here.” He didn’t reply, and I’m really not surprised.


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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