Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

A brief thought about why Heinlein discussions frequently become acrimonious

Sarah Hoyt said:

I’ve been on a dozen or two Heinlein panels at cons, and it always devolves to name calling.

She goes on to discuss why she thinks this is. I have a different theory about it. Heinlein’s god-given gift was sounding authoritative. It’s part of what I was talking about with his “of course”—he can say the most absurd things and the reader agrees. It’s also what I was saying about his “confiding tone.” This is a wonderful gift for a science fiction writer, and Heinlein made great use of it.

However, sounding authoritative is not actually the same thing as being right.

I’ve been on plenty of Heinlein panels too, including moderating one at a Worldcon about women reading Heinlein. I’ve also posted quite a bit about him here, including a review of Starship Troopers. None of it has ever descended to name calling. But I have noticed on Heinlein panels and in online discussions that some people tend to react as if they are being personally attacked to any suggestion that Heinlein might have been wrong about anything.

My theory is that it has to do with the way we respond to his tone emotionally, only afterwards justifying that response with logic. It’s very easy to confuse sounding authoritative with being right, perhaps because of the way we’re hardwired to respond to authority. Heinlein himself was pretty good about admitting he was wrong—look at his updates to his predictions about the future in Expanded Universe for instance. But he does seem to attract readers who think he was perfect, as well as others who delight in shooting motes in barrels. This leads to the kind of arguments where everyone gets on the defensive and there isn’t any way forward. I try to avoid that myself by finding an angle that takes me through what I want to say about the text without pushing those buttons, as best I can, and in general that seems to be working fairly well.


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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