Following up on Jo Walton’s post on why Heinlein discussions frequently become acrimonious, I think there’s another reason why Heinlein today presents a challenge to current readers and critics, which is that his work is literature in transition—it’s in a middle ground between being contemporary work and being part of the background of the genre. Or, to put it another way, the problem with Heinlein right now is that he’s not quite Neal Stephenson, and he’s not quite Jules Verne—he’s in a middle place, and that makes him and his work contentious.
Or, to put it in yet another way: Heinlein passed away 22 years ago, long enough ago that it’s reasonable to say that a majority of his readers under 35 never read him while he was still alive. To them, he’s always been history, and he’s always been, quite literally, less than vital to their understanding of the genre. The majority of his readers over 40, on the other hand, read him and were aware of him while he was still a lion of the literature—not just a Grand Master of the genre but the Grand Master, the first Grand Master, who while contentious and controversial as he may have been, was still someone to whom attention was to be paid.
Now, what I just wrote above is a simplification of a more complex situation, but in the general outlines I think it’s accurate—we’re in a place and time with Heinlein where he and his work are still well within living memory for some and not for others, and the schism lines in terms of opinions and allowances for him, his life and his attitudes fall out roughly along generational lines, with some skewing of that line conforming to politics. He’s not yet safely dead, like, for example, H.G. Wells, whose politics and social opinions would give many today the hives, but who’s been dead long enough that even those writers he directly influenced have been dead for a number of decades. Heinlein’s disciples are still at it and still having an impact on the genre.
Or to put it more simply, after 22 years, Heinlein’s not quite dead yet, and that’s his problem, and ours.
John Scalzi’s first published novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won him 2006’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; since then, he has published five more novels. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, a collection of essays from his popular weblog The Whatever, won the Hugo for Best Related Work in 2009. He is currently serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.