Mon
Aug 16 2010 3:10pm
Heinlein Biographer Tells All

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.

9 comments
James Enge
1. JamesEnge
“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.”

Urr. I guess I not only prefer pulp entertainment, I think it (and its more respectable cousin, Art) are more important than policy think tanks. "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," as the husband of an early sf writer pointed out.
CarlosSkullsplitter
2. CarlosSkullsplitter
I suppose I will have to listen to the mp3 to understand what Patterson might mean here, but I know that the world-famous Brookings Institution was founded when Heinlein was about nine, which would make the claim that "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," a rather interesting statement chronologically.

Granted, it was founded by a Missourian. St. Louis, though, not Kansas City.
CarlosSkullsplitter
3. Alexander K.
Haven't listened to the interview, but the matter-of-fact-ness of the statement "He was the greatest science fiction writer of the 20th century" gives me a definite sense that this is not the kind of biography I'm interested in.
William S. Higgins
4. higgins
Carlos writes:

I suppose I will have to listen to the mp3 to understand what Patterson might mean here, but I know that the world-famous Brookings Institution was founded when Heinlein was about nine...

Bill Patterson does not address this question in the podcast either. He again mentions it briefly. Not having read the book, I don't know whether he makes the case there.

Interrogating the Google Books version of Learning Curve, one finds Bill uses the phrase "think tank" on one page of his introduction, but otherwise it refers only to an informal group of friends Heinlein convened in World War II, not to any institution we'd call by the term.

I'm sure we can get Bill to sketch out the thinking behind his think-tank statement here or in some other online forum at some point.

Seems like the heyday of the policy think tank was more the period of Volume Two, yet to be published.
CarlosSkullsplitter
5. Bill Patterson
Don't quite understand what the confusion is here regarding "think tank." Some of the assertions here don't seem to have any contact with anything I said.

What I talked about was Heinlein's role (not an exclusive one) in science fiction's developing the conceptual language for dealing with the sociological aspects of science and technology, which was adopted by policy think tanks after WWII when the issue moved into prominence.

So far as I know, that sf developed the conceptual language later adopted by and further developed by "think tanks" like the Hudson Institute and the Rand think-tank is historically uncontroversial, though it's not something that's as well-publicized now as it was in the years immediately following WWII.

That Heinlein had a leading role in the original development process is also, so far as I know, historically uncontroversial.

I don't think I ever made any remark suggesting he invented the think tank.
CarlosSkullsplitter
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
This is your quote: "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."

That's at 2:24-2:40 in your mp3 interview with Mitch Wagner.

I happen to have a PDF of Douglas Aircraft's report from May 2, 1946, "Preliminary Design of an Experimental World-Circling Spaceship." That unit of Douglas split off two years later, becoming the RAND Corporation, perhaps the world's preeminent think tank on science and technology issues.

I'm not seeing any signs that Heinlein was involved in the process of developing a conceptual language for think tanks to discuss future technology, since they seem to have had the idea well in hand on their own.

Looking at the names of the people credited in this report, and I see names like Alvarez and Kistiakowsky -- some heavy-hitters indeed -- but I'm not seeing the names of any science fiction writers of the 1930s or early 1940s.

Perhaps you can explain what you mean further.
CarlosSkullsplitter
7. Bill Patterson
Carlos Skullsplitter -- the language you quote was a "summing up" of a brief discussion of this point, not a presentation of the point.

If you take a single view of something presented multiple times, there will naturally be elements missing from that single view. There would, otherwise, be no point in making multiple discussions or discussions and summaries.

I have said all I intended to say about the subject in the introduction and again in a summary discussion of the point on copperrobot. My point was quite limited, and your (I guess it's an attempt at a) rebuttal doesn't seem to me to have any logical contact with what I actually did say

(For an example of what I mean by "logical contact," you would have to evaluate the assumption that what Alvarez or Kistiakowsky did and did not say about how they generated their modalities of thought relates to the several-years-long dialog that had been going on in sf, with special reference to their sf-reading contacts inside the MED. I think at one point in 1943 or 1944, for example, Campbell commented that a remarkable number of his ASF subscriptions were being re-directed to Los Alamos. Factors like that make it difficult to suppose that other participants of the MED were coming up with these notions in a complete intellectual vacuum).

Consequently, I don't expect to discuss it any further, because such discussion seems to move outside the rather narrow point I was making. I happen to agree with the commonplace assertion that science fiction's role in creating the conceptual language for how we deal with our technological future and present is a culturally-significant fact, and so I included it in that list.

You may agree or disagree, and I don't feel called upon to debate the issue.
CarlosSkullsplitter
8. CarlosSkullsplitter
Dear Bill Patterson,
My point was quite limited, and your (I guess it's an attempt at a) rebuttal doesn't seem to me to have any logical contact with what I actually did say
I appreciate your attempts at civility. I understand that it must be difficult for you. But for the life of me, I cannot understand what this:
For an example of what I mean by "logical contact," you would have to evaluate the assumption that what Alvarez or Kistiakowsky did and did not say about how they generated their modalities of thought relates to the several-years-long dialog that had been going on in sf, with special reference to their sf-reading contacts inside the MED.
is supposed to mean.

"Evaluate the assumption" "about how they generated their modalities of thought relates to the several-years-long dialog"? From what famous scientists "did or did not say"?

Do you mean, did these writers read sf -- by which you seem to mean here, the magazine science fiction of the pulps, and not Wells or Verne or Twain -- and if so, were they influenced by it in how they thought about the future?

I would have thought that this question would be answered by the methods of scholarship, not by merely asserting that it happened.

Since I've read Campbell's published letters, I can't really consider him a factually reliable source on matters of scientific import. He's simply wrong too often, and often in a self-serving way.

Do you have any references, say, from personal memoirs of these think tank contributors, that science fiction -- the magazine science fiction of the pulps, specifically -- created a new conceptual language for them to think about the future? rather than their own imagination and professional discipline? Because it would be a feather in your cap if you nailed it down.

And conversely, if your argument relies on this but you can't show it, it'll cause people to wonder what other claims you've made without backing it up.

This is how one establishes a historical connection. Not merely repeating a fannish urban legend more slowly and with longer words.
CarlosSkullsplitter
9. balzig
CarlosSkullsplitter

I've been following these articles with interest but I can't help noticing that the bulk of your comments seem to be highly critical or at the least contentious.

Is this a professional thing with you or are you actualy a pedantic SOB with too much time on your hands?

Just asking

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