Robert A. Heinlein, author of Stranger in a Strange Land and more than 60 other books, was the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th Century, with an influence that went far beyond genre boundaries, according to William H. Patterson Jr., author of the new Heinlein biography.
During my interview with Patterson for my podcast, Copper Robot. I asked why Heinlein was important enough to rate a fat biography, 22 years after his death. “It’s not because he was a science fiction writer,” Patterson said. “He was an influential public figure in a lot of ways that people inside the science fiction community let drift out of consciousness.”
Robert and Virginia Heinlein (left), William H. Patterson Jr.
Heinlein was at the center of several social movements that continue to be influential today: Science fiction, especially to the extent that it “became the vocabulary for strategizing about technology in the present and the future” in the late 30s and early 40s. Patterson said Heinlein wasn’t the only voice in that transformation, but he was primus inter pares and led the charge. After World War II, government and think tanks began to pick up the language of ideas that Heinlein and his contemporaries had developed.
(I had to look up “primus inter pares” on Wikipedia. It means first among equals or first among peers.)
“He was the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th Century,” Patterson said. “Heinlein was to no small extent responsible for turning a pulp entertainment into something that could actually be the grandfather of the policy think tank.”
Heinlein’s role in think tanks was only a tiny part of our sprawling, two-hour interview. We also talked about Heinlein’s apparent internal contradictions: An Annapolis graduate and proud Navy officer who was also a socialist, a firm rationalist who believed in the occult. We talked about Heinlein’s childhood and upbringing, how Patterson came to write Heinlein’s biography, and a lot more.
The book is Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve, it’s a fascinating read for Heinlein fans and anyone interested in learning more about America of a century ago, and it goes on sale Tuesday.
Get the whole interview as an MP3.
Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.