Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

Through a backward telescope: Heinlein’s context

History is science fiction’s dirty little trade secret, as many an author in search of a plot has discovered. But more than that: history is also the clue to unlocking the writing of our forebears.

For me, the fascination of Patterson’s biography lies in the social and historical context it provides for Heinlein’s work. I was born in 1964, by which time he was 57; there’s more than half a century between us (not to mention a continental gulf—he being a midwesterner, Californian by adoption, and me being British), and consequently I’ve always found many of the attitudes exemplified in his fiction strange. But no longer; Learning Curve provides the key to unlocking Heinlein’s social attitudes and ideas, because it’s as much a social history of the United States of America during the first half of Heinlein’s life as it is a biography.

And it all goes to show just how strange Robert A. Heinlein was.

From a devoutly religious upbringing, we have a teenager who threw off religious belief and embraced atheism at a time when this would have been profoundly shocking. From the 1920s we have an enthusiastic practitioner of free love and “companionate” (read: open) marriage—in an age when cohabiting without a marriage license was a felony. And from an early age, we have an enthusiastic naturist, during a period when it was considered wicked and shameful. Somehow a radical free-thinker emerged from a bright but poor background (he was working from age 10, only able to read and study on the streetcar to and from school)—and promptly bent his every effort towards the goal of getting into Annapolis as a naval officer cadet!

Invalided out in his late twenties with a small pension, he drifted—not aimlessly, but at high speed and with great (even monomaniacal) enthusiasm. With the onset of the Depression he entered politics: not, as most readers might assume on a right/libertarian platform, but by campaigning for Upton Sinclair’s socialist platform in California in 1932. There’s a strong streak of idealism in much of Heinlein’s early fiction (from 1938 onwards), an almost exasperated opinion that if only intelligent and determined folks would do the right thing, the ills and ailments of society could be replaced by a rational and enlightened civilisation. But there’s also a growing disillusionment; political campaigning taught him to hide his own opinions and reflect those of the people who surrounded him, and by the mid-forties, when pinned down by a friend, his most illuminating letters showed dislike (ranging between deep hatred and mere disdain and mistrust) for all ideologies—communism, fascism, technocracy, and (to a lesser extent) libertarianism.

As for the writing:

What Heinlein learned from politics he applied to his fiction: find out what the folks you’re selling to want to hear, then sell it to them. Even so, he argued repeatedly with John W. Campbell over the content of the (in my politically-correct 21st century opinion, deeply odious) short novel Sixth Column—Campbell’s original suggestion was for a Yellow Peril pot-boiler, fueled by crude xenophobia and racism, but these elements stuck in Heinlein’s throat, and he argued back for a message about the struggle for liberty in the face of an imperial invader. Later, while 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. As for why he might hold his nose and write to order—in 1947 he was living in a 4’ x 7’ trailer, nearly broke and waiting for his divorce to come through. There’s nothing like poverty to concentrate the mind…

Consequently, it’s somewhat difficult to ferret out Heinlein’s actual opinions from his early fiction. All we can see is the collapsed two-dimensional snapshot of his history, left behind, frozen in print. Of the struggles and arguments that gave rise to the fiction, the casual reader is unaware.


Charles Stross is a British science fiction writer and the author of the Lovecraftian “Bob Howard—Laundry” thriller series, as well as the science fiction Merchants Princes series, and many other titles. His short story, “Palimpsest,” is nominated for a 2010 Hugo Award in the Best Novella category.

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