Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

The Customs Of His Tribe

Each man is his own prisoner, in solitary confinement for life.

    -Robert A. Heinlein, If This Goes On

As Shaw Pointed out, the customs of our tribe are not laws of nature

    -Robert A. Heinlein, Expanded Universe

I’m sorry I’ve been absent from the site for a while. I was kept away by a filthy migraine, induced by a new antibiotic.

I’ve been on a dozen or two Heinlein panels at cons, and it always devolves to name calling. I will admit I am far from an unbiased observer, but hearing someone call Heinlein a racist or a sexist offends me.

Part of this is the blindness of those who–with blythe certainty and missionary zeal–undertake to tally the color of characters’ skin and the thoughts of every female character in Heinlein’s books.

Perhaps because I’m not American by birth or education (though I am American by choice—more on the Americanism of Heinlein later), I see this for what it is:

The blinkered notion that the American customs, obsessions and–yes–intellectual vices of this place and time are laws of the universe. Heinlein had some things to say about that.

I remember my American Literature professor, a Fulbright scholar from South Carolina, slipping up while teaching a room full of Portuguese women and saying “his” instead of his/hers. He immediately started apologizing while we stared at him in round eyed shock. No, not at his slip but at his apology. I think one of us finally managed to point out to him that in Indo-European languages the masculine pronoun was used to signify both genders. It took the man a while to stop reeling under the impact of having his tribal assumptions questioned. It had never occurred to him that in that time and place female students were more concerned with parity of hiring and salary and equality in divorce laws. We were not wearing ourselves out in a quixotic tilting at linguistic windmills.

To believe Heinlein is a racist–or a sexist–takes ignoring the anti-racist comments in Podkayne and Friday. It takes ignoring the mixed marriage in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. It also takes ignoring the existence of “gatekeepers”–editors, agents, publishers–who try to keep the author roughly within the bounds of “saleable,” that is, of what the traffic will bear in his time and place. Heinlein wrote for publication and his publishers worked for remuneration.

Beyond all that, it is to impose on his writing the customs of a tribe: the academic, literary, gender/race/orientation obsessed tribe.

I belong to the tribe, and I can show you the tribal scars in the form of an MBA (plus a bit) in Modern Languages and Literatures. But I never swallowed undigested what was pushed at me as a law of the universe. (And no, not even what Heinlein pushed at me. I don’t care how much he liked the idea, I will persist in thinking group marriage will only work in most cases with all-bisexual angels, or with people on heavy narcotics. The few functioning group marriages I know are the exception, not the rule.)

Already, twenty years after graduation, my literature-major buddies and I make jokes on the subject of “all penetration is violation” (you have NOT lived till you hear a gay man with a sense of humor say it.) Do you want to bet that the laughter will not grow more uproarious as we go? Or that the future will not look at our obsession with race as a pathological symptom? (For heaven’s sake, aren’t there other things to worry about than a marginal melanin increase? Like the content of a man’s character, to quote some famous man or other?) Or that they won’t be bemused at our counting the number of individuals of other races, gay men and lesbians (does Friday count? She had sex with both genders, but fell in love with a woman) in Heinlein’s books?

More importantly–do we really want the topic to be “was Heinlein racist? Was Heinlein sexist?”

Look, we can discuss the treatment of race in his books – as long as we take into account that it reflects his times as well as his beliefs, just like the startlingly homophobic comments in Stranger are probably a product of the time and certainly denied by his later books.

We can even discuss–it’s an interesting topic, and one I intend to pick up either later today or tomorrow early – his irritation at colleges not allowing females to become full-fledged engineers in light of his belief married women should not work. Those topics are fascinating, particularly in the context of his blind spots and contradictions. (Let’s remember we’re, none of us, exempt from those, either).

BUT we do NOT have the right to call him names. Discussing whether he was racist or sexist is the appending of epithets, not a valid topic for interesting discussion. Such names seek to preempt argument by daring anyone to identify himself (or, yes, herself, if you must) with what are–rightly–despised prejudices.

Where I come from it is considered extremely bad manners to call a dead man names. It has been for a long time. The Romans had a proverb about it.

It assumes we know what was in his heart, when he himself might not have known it. It allows us to count coup on–arguably–the most popular SF author who ever lived. It presupposes we can sit in judgement of the giants who came before us and who opened the way for us to be as free as we are.

It only diminishes us in the end.


Sarah A. Hoyt was born in Portugal.  She lives in Colorado.  In between the two locations, she has worked at a variety of jobs ranging from multilingual translator to professional clothes-ironer.  She has sold over seventeen novels.  Her most recent and relevant publication is the science fiction novel Darkship Thieves.  Samples of her work are at http://sarahahoyt.com/

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