Like Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Le Guin, McCaffrey and other giants of the SF field, the work of Robert A. Heinlein can be totally overwhelming to an unfamiliar reader scratching their heads in the “H” section of the science fiction shelves in a bookstore or library. Where should you begin? Where should you end? What should you skip and what is essential?
In honor of Heinlein’s 105th birthday here’s a brief list of 5 titles that fill my personal criterion of “if you read only ONE Heinlein novel.” But if you read all five, you’ll probably realize the awesome diversity and range of themes that the late dean of science fiction was capable of. This is by no means a definitive list, but instead, my personal shortlist for the uninitiated.
Whenever you’re sitting around and thinking to yourself, “You know I could really go for a novel in which is exactly like Lord of the Flies, but only in space,” then this is your book. Funnily enough, this book was published the same year as Golding’s Lord of the Flies and if it were up to me, it would be taught instead. The primary SF conceit of the novel deals with interplanetary colonization through big teleport jumps. Naturally some younger folks get stranded and certain ugly aspects of human nature are revealed. The only one of Heinlein’s “juvenilia” that I feel gets overlooked, and easily my favorite from that period.
I talk about this book all the time, and by that, I mean I literally bring it up at least once a month in conversations with people about everything from the nature of disease to sexual mores. (Which I guess is all I talk about?) Anyway, the premise is great: a guy becomes immortal through scientific means and as a result lives for a super long time. In doing so, he manages to in essence become the ancestors of generations of people. I wish I could say he becomes his own ancestor, but Heinlein did that for real in “All You Zombies.” The main character, Lazarus Long, appears in other Heinlein novels, notably and first in Methuselah’s Children and then subsequently in The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, the last of which is all about his mom. But if you’re going to read only one Heinlein book about Lazarus Long, then this is the one. (Methuselah’s Children fans, I wish I could say I’m ready for your retort, but I am not.)
We wouldn’t have Invasion of the Body Snatchers without this one! Though a little slow in sections, and maybe not as horrific as it could be, the notion of parasite aliens taking over our bodies is so classic that it is totally worth reading the original version of this premise. The aliens even come in an honest-to-goodness flying saucer. Though some might say this book is simply an anti-communist novel, reading it without that historical lens lightens up the rhetoric a little bit. I’m sure many might say it’s impossible to read Heinlein this way, but you could try. What I mean is the aliens don’t have to be a red scare metaphor no more than Aslan must be a Christ-metaphor for secular readers of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. Right?
I encountered a version of this novel with a super-racy cover in my middle school library in the 1990s. I would be lying if some of the sex in this one didn’t make me blush a little then (and now) but the story of a robot person employed, as a super-spy assassin is unforgettable. The notion that Friday will be killed if people find out she is an artificial life form makes the science fiction of the story perfectly interwoven with the stakes of the novel. It may not be Heinlein’s most perfectly plotted book, nor his most progressive, but it’s a damn exciting book and I’m shocked it hasn’t been adapted into a stunt-heavy action film yet.
No need to get into the various controversies surrounding certain interpretations of this one, the reason why Stranger in a Strange Land is so great is the originality of the premise. A man from Earth is raised by Martians, and then sent back to Earth. And that’s just the beginning of the novel. Should you read the unabridged version? Probably, though my first experience was with the abridged version and it still threw me for a cultural shock. I wish I could say I fully “grok” the affect this book had on me, but really, there’s just no way to know. Of all his books, the reason this remains Heinlein’s masterpiece is because the book seems to somehow elevate itself out of the author’s own interests. It reads like a non-fiction, ugly warts and all.
Now, surely there are some Heinlein aficionados out there with different opinions on essential reading from this grand master. Let me know below! (I love Starship Troopers too!)
Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. His father forced him to read Have Spacesuit, Will Travel when he was 9. Thanks, dad.