Aug 12 2010 2:12pm

Heinlein: Forward-looking diversity advocate or sexist bigot? Yes

Charlie Stross writes:

[W]hile working on the novel that was to become Space Cadet, Heinlein warned his agent that the inclusion of an ethnically diverse cast was not only deliberate—it was non-negotiable, and if an editor requested the removal of the Jewish character, Blassingame (the agent) was to take the book elsewhere.

This is the letter Heinlein wrote to his agent about his wishes (from Learning Curve, the new Heinlein biography):

I have deliberately selected a boy of Scotch-English pioneer ancestry, a boy whose father is a German immigrant, and a boy who is American Jewish. Having selected this diverse background they are then developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds. You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of the three boys is a “must” and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism. The use of a diverse group . . . is part of my intent; it must not be changed. . . . I am as disinterested as a referee but I want to get over an object lesson in practical democracy.

This is all admirable, but let’s keep in mind what’s missing from this cast: Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions. Heinlein’s book was enormously ethnically diverse in that it included the full variety of American Judeo-Christian boys.

And even the notion that the ethnically diverse boys are “developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds” is a little creepy. Because America isn’t a melting pot where everyone is the same as everyone else, it’s more like a stew. We work together, play together, and shop together, but we have different religions, and sometimes wear different clothing and speak different languages. Often the children of immigrants will be bilingual, speaking native, unaccented, perfect English while out in the world but their parents’ language at home.

Also missing from Space Cadet: Girls. In another letter, Heinlein describes his formula for writing YA fiction (or, as it was called then, “boys’ books”). One element of the formula: “No real love interest and female characters should be only walk-ons.” Because God forbid the book should get girl-cooties or something. In Red Planet, one of the heroes of the book says, “Now, as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too.”

It’s that kind of thing that makes Heinlein’s attitudes toward women controversial in fandom. On the one hand, his books are populated by women engineers, women politicians, and even, in Friday, a deadly female secret agent. On the other hand: Babies? Cooking? WTF?

Jo Walton and Pamela Dean write about Heinlein’s attitude toward girls and women, and how they felt as girls reading Heinlein. And Walton, who comes from Wales and lives in Montreal, writes about how she felt as a non-American reading the staunchly American Heinlein, who espoused the belief, at times, that Americans were a better breed than people elsewhere in the world. Heinlein could be ethnocentric sometimes. (I exclude Heinlein’s comment in Time Enough for Love where he says, “Vancouver was a part of the United States where the people were so clever that they never paid taxes to Washington.” That’s not ethnocentrism, it’s just funny.)

I do not mean to be critical of either Charlie or Heinlein here, because in fact it was admirable for Heinlein to insist on inclusion of a Jewish character in his book at a time when anti-Semitism was still commonplace. Also, a German-American a few years after the end of World War II. And Heinlein did it at a time when he was broke, and could have been forgiven for knuckling under to editors’ demands to whiten up the book. As a Jewish American myself, I’m grateful to Heinlein for doing his part to tear down barriers. By the time I was growing up 20 years after the publication of Heinlein’s novel, anti-Semitism had all but vanished in the parts of America I have inhabited, popping up only occasionally in circumstances that are more weird than scary.

Heinlein was admirable in that he transcended many of the ethnic and gender prejudices of his time, but he was human in that he didn’t transcend all of them. He was born in the Edwardian Era, and died before the invention of the World Wide Web. We’re a future generation now, and looking back we judge him. Future generations will judge us, too.

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.

David Levinson
1. DemetriosX
I think the rather minimalist diversity in Space Cadet is more a reflection of what Heinlein thought the market would bear. If he thought there might be complaints about a Jewish character, he probably expected a strongly ethnic character to be rejected outright. Female characters only being walk-ons was also no more than standard publishing business for the period. The same can be said of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, or any other book marketed toward boys.

Consider also that his later juveniles gave us girls, black characters of both genders, even a Zoroastrian. For most of his early career, he pushed the boundaries of what the publishers would accept. By the time the anything-goes era finally rolled around, he would provide plenty of characters who were bisexual, transgendered, all sorts of things.
Captain Button
2. Captain Button
Ok, I'm stupid.

I never noticed any ethnicity in Space Cadet, and looking at the characters listed in the Wikipedia entry, I still don't see it. (I've never been good at matching names to ethicity, I must have been sick they day they taught that in school.)

Would someone take pity on me and spell it out who is supposed to be what?

Wikipedia lists:
Matt Dodson (from Iowa)
William 'Tex' Jarman ("Texan" isn't an ethnicity? 8-)})
Oscar Jensen (Venusian colonist) (Oscar might be German, I suppose.)
Pierre Armand (Ganymede colonist. Sounds French.)
Girard Burke
Lt. Thurlow
Charlie Stross
3. cstross
I'm with DemetriosX: Heinlein was pushing, hard, at the comfort level of a very conservative section of the publishing industry. At the same time, he was trying not to starve. There's an inevitable tension between writing what the market will accept and what you want to say: I'm willing to give him points for at least trying to push the limits.

At the same time, the point about the lack of cultural diversity is telling. Diverse origins or backgrounds are fine, but there's only one acceptable future pattern of citizenship. This probably shouldn't be surprising, given Heinlein's own character-forming experience (as a USN officer cadet) and convictions about the desirability of a rationally-planned future world. Alternatively -- given that Space Cadet is clearly rooted in that experience -- it may well be a case of hidden assumptions that he didn't examine sufficiently deeply.
Michael Walsh
4. MichaelWalsh
"Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions."

Ok, find me a book from the same time period, Space Cadet being published in 1948, that has the above.
Captain Button
5. DavidA
I believe that Heinlein was describing the rigid requirements that publishers insisted on for juvenile iction, not his own viewpoint, when he said "No love interest, and female characters should only be walk-ons."

Have you actually read Space Cadet? He makes clear that the cadet ranks included men of all countries, religions and ethnicity. It is certainly true there are no women, and it is certainly true the main characters are all of Western European ancestery (and by hypothesis American). But again I think that reflects the limitations of the publishing industry more than his personal limitations.
Charlie Stross
6. cstross
Let me just note, [i] Michael Walsh, that in 1948:

* Gender reassignment surgery barely existed

* Homosexuality was almost universally illegal

* There had not been significant immigration by Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu communities in the USA

* Asians (I assume in the American sense -- people with origins in China/Indo-China/Korea/Japan/PacRim) were rare due to restrictions on immigration into the USA

Given the market Heinlein was writing for (books for White American boys), it's hard to see a wedge to get any of the above categories into print.

Disabled people and non-Americans ... yes, valid criticism. But I think it's a step too far to expect Heinlein to be that far ahead of his culture -- when writing for money in a conservative market sector (because children's literature is always savagely policed by the guardians of orthodoxy).
Sean Arthur
7. wsean
Certainly it's reasonable to call out Heinlein on Amero-centrism, but listing out all the minorities that he didn't include seems a wee bit unfair, especially given the letter showing what the effort to be inclusive might be costing him.

It's easy for us to sit here smugly in our 21st century tolerance and point fingers, but Heinlein did an admirable job of inclusiveness at a time when it was far more difficult than it is now.
Captain Button
8. Captain Button
I read Heinlein's long-unpublished first novel For Us, The Living when it published after his death. One of the interesting things I noticed was that in the backstory Europe had destroyed itself in endless wars. I suppose if you grew up during and just after WWI and then started writing as Europe was sliding towards WWII this seemed a lot more plausible than it would today.

Later in his "Future History" Europe is destroyed by a nuclear war which the US avoids by being an isolationist theocracy at the time. Canada manages to stay out of it without needing such extreme measures.

On much shakier ground, my impression is that he was implicitly assuming that Africa and Asia would just stay undeveloped and thus play no part in space. I was going to say "undeveloped and overpopulated" there, but I'm not sure when he got hung up on the dangers of overpopulation. Was it a reaction to what he saw on his round the world trip in Tramp Royale, or was it before that.

One of the things I hope this biography will shed some light on.
Captain Button
9. Michael Kwan
I think that it is important to understand that these were general, American cultural assumptions to a large degree. And, in 1948, the idea of examining or questioning these assumptions was itself not a widespread idea.

It's fair to compare Heinlein's choices on the backgrounds of the characters of Space Cadetto similar choices made in 1956's Forbidden Planet and the all-white crew of the United Planets Cruiser C-57D. If I remember correctly there you had a crew similarly diverse in ethnicity (at least, visually) to Heinlein's. I've always thought that the Forbidden Planet crew would have been very familiar to audiences of 1956 (only 2 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision) and especially to audience members who had served in the US Navy during WWII.

We can note now the assumptions of the past that went unexamined, but we have to understand the cultural context of the time to understand those assumptions and why and how they were held. Mitch is right to note that we'll be judged in the future for our assumptions as well. It would work the other way too. If one of us with now fairly commonly held beliefs on ethnic and gender diversity, multi-culturalism, and attitudes toward goverment were plunked back into 1948, we would be an alien outsider and judged pretty harshly.
Michael Walsh
10. MichaelWalsh
I suspect 60 years from now what our current culture will be called out on would amaze one & all currently alive.
Captain Button
11. CarlosSkullsplitter
Charlie, there was a substantial Japanese Buddhist community located mainly in California, which Heinlein would have been familiar with.

And of course, that's why he added Franklin Roosevelt Mitsui to Campbell's racist potboiler.
12. Freelancer
Heinlein was brilliant, thoughtful, and yes, ahead of the norm in many ways which now fall under the heading of PC. And yet, with two exceptions, his books always disappointed me for their formulaic and consistent degredation from any viable plot, into mind-numbing orgiastic behavior. Of course, that's a matter of preference, and mine is to just say no thank you.
Captain Button
13. Bill Altreuter
Isn't Lt. Thurlow black?
Captain Button
14. OtterB
Thinking about the diversity or lack of it on display in Space Cadet in particular, I think you also have to also consider the varying attitudes toward the Venusian natives. It's been a long time since I read it, but as I recall the "good guy" cadets were respectful of the natives and their beliefs (and were rewarded for that respectful treatment). The obnoxious ones looked down on them and didn't view them as people, and got their comeuppance for their colonial attitude.
j p
15. sps49
Johnny Rico was of Filipino ancestry.

Poddy was female and had her uncle, Senator Tom Fries, who was at least partly descended from Maori.

(Carlos @11- California is a big place; I don't know where a Japanese Buddhist community is)

Part of the excellence of his writing is that it is often apparent that he knows his subjects; if he never knew a Muslim woman then he would be generic Hollywood (doesn't every movie you see get the stuff you know wrong) and it would not be authentic.

I grew up on military bases, and my neighbors and schoolmates were diverse before diversity was cool, but even so I recall encountering no transgendered squids and no Hindu jarheads.

And I don't understand the seven paragraphs of criticism followed by "I do not mean to be critical". What do you mean? I don't understand. I applaud his juveniles for preparing his whitebread audience to be accepting of great differences in fellow sentients with each successive book.
Robert James
16. DocJames
"Asians; disabled people; non-Americans of any kind; lesbians, gays, and the transgendered; Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or representatives of the other major world religions."

What is interesting about that list is that RAH put every single one of those categories into his writing, both before and after he wrote the juveniles. We have to remember the taboos of the publishing world in the late forties, particularly for the sheltered world of children's books. That he put in strong female characters, non-Christian, non-white characters, and constantly crusaded against racism, sexism, and ignorance throughout the juveniles and elsewhere, is nothing less than astonishing.

Heinlein was a feminist, but it was not the feminism of the sixties and seventies, which was often hostile to motherhood and marriage. His feminist roots are those of the Progressive period, of suffragettes and twenties radicalism. I remember hearing a feminist in the eighties arguing that all sexual intercourse was by definition rape; the mind still boggles at that one. That Heinlein has his characters, both male and female, obsess about procreation and reproduction is a function of many things, but to define it as sexist is to ignore the huge numbers of women I know who demand equal rights, and yet celebrate being wives and mothers these days. Betty Friedan, toward the end of her amazing life, wondered publicly about the losses feminists produced in their rush away from motherhood and marriage; she was castigated and attacked. I am male; I think women (and men) should be allowed to make babies, or not make babies, as they will, and to pursue every kind of career they wish. We need to recall that one of the last things Heinlein was doing before he died was pushing for a woman to run for the presidency, and that his screenplay for Project: Moonbase had a female president. He often said women were smarter, stronger, and more capable than men. He said his wife was a better human being than he was.

So here's my question: why shouldn't our best and brightest want to have children, and pass on those gifts?
Jo Walton
17. bluejo
That's actually the list of boys from Rocketship Galileo, not Space Cadet. And Manny's Jewishness does come up, his father mentions his bar mitzvah and how it does mean he's an adult and can take adult decisions like going to the moon.

Space Cadet has an Iowan, a Texan, a guy from Venus and a guy of French ancestry from Ganymede. Diversity up to a point... And he mentions people in turbans, which actually implies some cultural diversity.

And actually, Heinlein was awesome on including the disabled -- Rhysling, the blind commander of the cadets in Space Cadet, the no-legged recruiter in Starship Troopers, Manny going round in a wheelchair because Earth gravity is too much... all just from the top of my head.
Captain Button
18. Doug M.
"Asians... were rare due to restrictions on immigration"

1940 census: about 250,000 Asian-Americans, of whom almost exactly half lived in California. Not as common as they are today, but not what you'd call rare.

Also, the all-Asian American units (especially the all-Japanese American 100th Infantry Battalion) got a lot of publicity in the years immediately following the war.

That said, the United States of 1950 was still around 85% white. So I can't fault Heinlein too hard. As various people have pointed out, he was pushing, at least a bit, against the the boundaries of a pretty conservative publishing system.

/That/ said, I do wish he hadn't named his first black character "Uncle".

Doug M.
Captain Button
19. Bill Patterson
Slight problem here: Charlie Stross made a mistake in his original comment I didn't think it worth while to correct there: the remarks were made of Rocket Ship Galileo, not Space Cadet.

Rocket Ship Galileo was written in February 1946. The late unpleasantness made certain races and ethnicities more topical than others.
Captain Button
20. Bill Patterson
To Doug M:

/That/ said, I do wish he hadn't named his first black character "Uncle".

Ummm -- he didn't; he named his first black character "Rod."

And his editor nearly had a heart attack when she realized that he had put a black character into a juvenile.
Mitch Wagner
21. MitchWagner
The commenters who are arguing with me seem to be reiterating the same points I make in my post:

Heinlein is to be admired as a pioneer in espousing ethnic and gender equality, but he wasn't perfect. He was a man of his period, and his period fell short of our own. We shouldn't be too smug, because we're going to be judged by future generations the same way that we judge Heinlein.

Bill - Thanks for the correction on the title.
j p
22. sps49
Mitch Wagner @ 21-

You started your post (after the quoted sections) with your list of who was missing from the cast. My intention, and apparently that of others, is to refute your initial position and list examples of where Heinlein includes different people.

If you meant Space Cadet (or Rocket Ship Galileo?) only, or focused more on Heinlein's female characters, maybe there would be fewer disagreeing posts. I am guilty of not writing what I meant more often that I like; what I understood from your writing here may not have been what you meant.
Captain Button
23. BrianMc
Sorry, but this is a pretty ignorant article. By the standard Wagner sets, most books published in 2010 are bigoted, because you can always find a class or ethnicity that's left out of a book.

A case might be made if all of Heinlein's other books were devoid of all of those categories, but I'm pretty sure a number of them were covered in other books of his.

Wagner's article is a sign of the times -- extreme political-correctness in action. How sad.
Captain Button
24. Noel Maurer
Mitch, I didn't get your main point, but I'd still have to disagree with your revised one. Heinlein's period fell far short of our own, but the man did not, with one major exception.

Others have pointed out the racial and ethnic diversity in his early work, including disabled characters. I haven't re-read him much recently, but what I have seems, well, modern. So I don't get your point, unless the standards you're using go beyond even the 2010 American norm.

Charlie pointed out that there is only "one acceptable future pattern of citizenship" in his work. True. I'd add to that, and I think Charlie would agree, a majority of Americans would still believe that. Heck, on most days I certainly do.

To put it another way, I don't find the statement “the ethnically diverse boys are 'developed as American boys without reference to their backgrounds'” even remotely creepy ... yet not only did my mother spoke another language at home, but so did a large plurality (if not majority) of the people I went to school with. I might not be representative, but the polls from the Pew Hispanic Center would suggest otherwise.

My point is not that Heinlein's apparent attitude towards citizenship and assimilation right or wrong or good or bad, just that it certainly seems to be smack inside the contemporary mainstream, at least in the United States.

In Tramp Royale, Heinlein had some decidedly obnoxious things to say about Indonesian and his observations about South America are just weird. It's a strange book written by an unobservant man, with very odd attitudes about Asians. (The implicit assumption behind the comments in the last chapter is that Asian immigrants to American wouldn't assimilate.)

But his creepy attitudes towards Asians aren't something that I can fool myself into thinking aren't smack inside the modern American mainstream, much as they annoy me personally. Anybody who's read George Friedman talk on the future of U.S.-Mexico relations (or who knows that Lou Dobbs' wife and children are of Mexican descent) can attest to that, even if the creepy unassimiliable people aren't Indonesian.

Where Heinlein is head-scratchingly atavistic is in regards to homosexuality, unless that weird reference in Stranger was something his publisher made him put in.

And where he is just unreadable weird is in his attitude towards women. But that seems idiosyncratic more than atavistic. Weird in 1940, weird in 1960, weird in 1980, and weird in 2010.

But as regards the rest of the attitudes implicit in his fiction, I'm afraid that I don't understand your revised point. Heinlein seems quite modern. You can judge him, of course, and be right to do so, but you'd probably be judging the median American as well. I think Charlie is right.

Where am I mistaken, or what am I missing?
Captain Button
25. Noel Maurer
BrianMc@23: I agree with your first two paragraphs, but you should realize that your uncalled-for jibe in the third paragraph actually contradicts the argument of the first two.

Besides being uncalled-for.
Captain Button
26. James Davis Nicoll
By Time Enough for Love (?) RAH has two people hook up before they find out what sex the other is, so his attitudes appear to have evolved on this point.
Captain Button
27. Robin 'Roblimo' Miller
Yes, Heinlein was a man of his period. My father knew him, liked him, and was a huge fan. And Heinlein fought as actively as he could to include characters in his work that stretched the boundaries of what was allowed by his publishers, especially in the juveniles.

How diverse were the characters in the competing Tom Swift, Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books? Not at all. They were not only white but, aside from the comic-relief Texan cook "Chow" in the Swift series, upper class, too.

Moon is a Harsh Mistress: about 2/3 of the way through, when Manny is touring Earth, he pulls out a photo of his family and freaks out religionists in the S.E. United States, not so much because of the polyandry involved in his "line" marriage, but because Mannie is black, while at least some of the wives (including Wyoming, specifically described as blonde) are white.

In other words, *race did not matter* in Heinlein's moon colony. It only mattered to some of the fuddies back on Earth. Culture? That mattered. Heinlein's Hong Kong Luna was populated by Chinese who were more or less the kind of Chinese whose children in California you'd expect to dominate competitive University admissions, a stereotype that is solidly based in fact.

Japanese Buddhists? Sure. I knew some as a schoolkid in L.A. in the 50s and in Orange, Calif. in the 60s, and I simply assumed Heinlein's casts mirrored the diverse makeups of my school classrooms and thought no more about it.

And of course, now I live only a few miles away from St. Petersburg, FL, where the Church of All Worlds was located in "Stranger." I've always pictured the book's final scene taking place at the Don Cesar Hotel despite any evidence in the book either for or against this being the setting Heinlein had in mind.

Anyway,yes, Mitch. Heinlein was a man of his times. And a fusty and feisty one, marked by his military experience -- as my father was, and as I have been in turn, in my case more in the manner of a Joe Haldeman character than a Heinlein one, which is a generational difference.

A significant, but little-noted, influence on Heinlein (and many other SF writers, especially those who lived in or near L.A.) was Forrest J Ackerman, an outstanding SF fan and so-so writer who also wrote a fair amount of lesbian-oriented soft porn.

I wish I could tell you more, but I wasn't born until 1952 and didn't have a whole lot of interest in science fiction until 1959 or 1960, which is when I started reading at an adult level and picked up a copy of A.E. Van Vogt's "Voyage of the Space Beagle."
28. boquaz
I remember reading I Will Fear No Evil as a kid. It was my first exposure to trans-gender ideas. I doubt there is any modern author who could write a book a 12 year old boy would find interesting about a man who turns into a woman. (Ok, maybe that's not true...)

You can look at any individual book Heinlein wrote and find all sorts of problems with it; but as a whole, he really opened a lot of eyes to new ways of thinking.
Bruce Cohen
29. SpeakerToManagers
If you're trying to understand Heinlein's views on race, you need to read the words he wrote in his own voice, not the cast of characters of one of his novels; as several people have pointed out the editorial bigotries of the 1940's and 50's were pretty well set in stone and it's impressive that he got as much latitude as he did in that time.

IIRC there's a section of A Tramp Royale, written around 1950, in which Heinlein comes out very strongly against the contemporary Jim Crow laws and all the other apparatus of segregation, saying that African-Americans (he used the word "Negroes" of course) were and should be treated as full citizens of the United States; anything less would be a shameful renunciation of the true spirit and purpose of the nation. And yet in another section (again, IIRC; this section may actually have been in another book), he calls American Indians "primitive", "cowardly", and "savage", and supports the Indian School system which was designed to destroy the Indian cultures and languages.

It's not surprising that Heinlein would agree with the dominant white view of the Indians; it's a little surprising that he would do so while disagreeing so strongly with the white view of black people.
john mullen
30. johntheirishmongol
Looks like everyone did great job of defending RAH. I can't add a lot to it except that it seemed to me that he pushed the limits of the time about as far as they could go without being offensive about it.

I pretty much think the author of this article was way off base.
Captain Button
31. Cpatain Button
Regarding @18 and @20 on Heinlein's "first black character":

Assuming you two are talking about Podkayne of Mars (1962) and Tunnel in the Sky (1955), doesn't Dr. Royce Washington precede them both in "Magic, Inc." (1940)?
David Levinson
32. DemetriosX
Noel Maurer @24:

Admittedly, it's been a long time since I read Stranger, but the only somewhat negative comments about homosexuality I recall came from one secondary character. When he later joins Mike's church, Jubal points out that membership also requires him to kiss men who are members, and the guy sheepishly admits he was wrong.

I seem to remember a few hints about homosexuality in Time Enough for Love. Things are a bit cloudier in I Will Fear No Evil, since the formerly male protagonist is now in a woman's body, but he seems to enjoy his experiments with sex. Libby goes transgender in Number and Colin Campbell freaks at first when he learns he's spent the night with a man in Cat, before recalling an incident with a scout master.

Overall, I sense a general ambivalence, with a growing trend towards, "Whatever floats your boat, but it's not really my thing." OTOH, Kinsey suggests there was a lot of experimentation going on in the heartland, particularly among younger teens. And if he spent some time among the bohemians and artists in the Village, one does have to wonder if he engaged in a little experimentation as an adult.
Mitch Wagner
33. MitchWagner
Thanks for all your comments, everyone. I've written a response and submitted it as another post in this series, hopefully the excellent editors at will have it up soon.
C Smith
34. C12VT
@DocJames - yes! Great comment. I consider myself a feminist, and I'm also a stay-at-home mom - I don't think this is a contradiction. Personally I'd like to see more respect given in our society to traditionally female tasks like childcare, cooking, home-making etc.

Also, it seems like the results of feminism have been a bit one-sided - a lot of formerly "male" pursuits, like being a doctor or playing sports, are now much more open to women, but the opposite isn't nearly as true; you don't see a lot of stay-at-home dads or little boys being encouraged to pursue cooking or sewing or other "feminine" interests. And I think that really does men a disservice. People should be able to make choices based on their own interests and personalities, not their gender.
Michael Walsh
35. MichaelWalsh
The mention of transgendered just brought to mind "All you Zombies".
Captain Button
36. James Davis Nicoll
Looks like everyone did great job of defending RAH.

Actually we're just setting up the feint (Sixth Column, the Yellow Menace book, which was based on a JWC that was much, much worse, so not really Heinlein's fault or at least not entirely) and the right-cross (Farnham's Freehold, the black cannibals one).
Captain Button
37. Doug M.
Captain Button, we're talking about _Tunnel in the Sky_ and _Time For the Stars_ (1957).

Bill, my understanding is that Heinlein intended for Rod to be black, and clearly stated in letters that he was black. But if you go by the text alone, his race is only implied, and never clearly stated -- necessarily so, since Scribners would not have accepted a juvenile with a black protagonist.

My impression is that Uncle was Heinlein's first black character to be clearly and unambigously identified as such. Now that I think about it, that might not be right -- Caroline, in _Tunnel_, is black, right?

That said, Uncle stands out because (1) he's unambiguously black, (2) he's an important secondary character who plays a key role in the plot, and (3) he's... kinda unfortunate.

Doug M.
Captain Button
38. Bill Patterson
Exactly so on all points.
Captain Button
39. James Davis Nicoll
Wait, I'm the first one to mention Mr. Kiko? He's a major character in The Star Beast , which came out in 1954.

1: Not that you'd know that from the current wikipedia description.
Jo Walton
40. bluejo
Caroline in TUNNEL is black, explicitly and out on the page. I remember noticing this as a kid and thinking how cool it was.
David Levinson
41. DemetriosX
Doug @37: Yeah, Caroline is explicitly black in Tunnel. And how's that for pushing the envelope. In 1955 in a book aimed at white boys, one of the most important characters, the one with all the political savvy and smart ideas, is a black girl.

Uncle is unfortunately named, but there a couple of things here. First, in the time and place where Heinlein grew up, "Uncle" was a polite and respectful way of addressing a black man. In the South, it probably still was in 1957. More to the point, it wouldn't surprise me if Heinlein gave him that name and persona as a way of yanking some chains. When he stands up and talks about how a man is supposed to behave it undoubtedly triggered some very different reactions in 1957 than it does today. There may have been an irony and a message that we can't really perceive today. Or it may just have been a way of slipping this character under the publisher's radar.
Captain Button
42. Bill Patterson
Oops, you're right Captain Button -- Royce Worthington (1940) was the "first" black character, and a very interesting example of playing around with and invalidating racial stereotypes.

Unless Joan Freeman in "Lost Legacy" could be construed as black or mixed race. I don't think wearing "creole" color is anything more than suggestive.

Let's see -- I did want to point out in response to the comments about Heinlein on homosexuality, that in 1960 when Stranger was finalized, the APA's position on homosexuality was that it was a psychosexual pathology. a disease. For Heinlein to mention it in any terms other than as an alarming disease was pushing the boundaries. That position of the APA was not changed until well into the 1970's, IIRC -- i.e., after Heinlein's first non-pathological homosexual main character (Jake Salomon in IWFNE).

So I tend to be a little dubious about claims that Heinlein's fiction was somehow more retrograde on this position than necessary. (i.e., that it's a moral fault on Heinlein's part).
Mitch Wagner
43. MitchWagner
@C12VT @DocJames - One of Heinlein's characters in Red Planet says that a boy should be considered a man in a frontier society when he can shoot a gun, and a girl should be considered a woman when she can tend babies and cook.

Because I find that comment objectionable doesn't mean I'm opposed to people having children. I'm just opposed to that definition of adulthood, even for a frontier society. What about girls who can shoot, or boys who can tend babies and cook?

@James David Nicoll:

"Actually we're just setting up the feint (Sixth Column, the Yellow Menace book, which was based on a JWC that was much, much worse, so not really Heinlein's fault or at least not entirely)... "

I'm going to go with "not entirely." It's still Heinlein's name on the book, and he wrote it. As RAH himself said, he himself is responsible for his own actions.

I'm going to have to reread Sixth Column. I loved it when I was a boy, and didn't even notice racism.

"... and the right-cross (Farnham's Freehold, the black cannibals one)."

I do mention Farnham's Freehold in my follow-up post, not yet live on (at least not yet last time I looked).
Mitch Wagner
45. MitchWagner
... and the link got stripped from my previous message on this discussion....

Sigh. Some days it doesn't pay to gnaw off the restraints and get out of bed in the morning.
Ursula L
46. Ursula
First, in the time and place where Heinlein grew up, "Uncle" was a polite and respectful way of addressing a black man.

Not really.

"Uncle" was a somewhat more polite and respectful term for a black man than calling him "boy."

But it wasn't actually polite and respectful.

The polite and respectful title for an adult man at that time (and still) was "sir." And black men, simply by their blackness, were ineligible to be given the real respect of being called "sir."

Using a less-insulting insult is not the same as showing respect.
David Dyer-Bennet
47. dd-b
I feel like we see Heinlein's views on homosexuality evolving in the books.

In Stranger Jill thinks Mike would sense a "wrongness" in homosexuals.

In I Will Fear No Evil there's a good guy character who happens to be homosexual but it's not important to the plot (mentioned above).

And by Time Enough For Love Gallahad and Ishtar negotiate "seven hours of ecstasy" without knowing each others sexes (one asks, the other answers "does it matter?", and the response is "I suppose not."). (The effect is somewhat spoiled by their both expressing pleasure at discovering what the actual sex of the other is; however, it's surprised pleasure, meaning they consciously negotiated a probably-homosexual encounter for its own sake (no evidence of other reasons than enjoying it). This feels to me like an author whose brain is ahead of his hormones on the topic.)
Captain Button
48. James Davis Nicoll
The early test used to spot possessed men in The Puppet Masters was to see if they reacted to the Way Hot Female secret agent. Gay men would not do well under that test regime (Neither would straight men who happened not to be attracted to her).

Seems to have been more of an oversight than actual malice on the part of the agents.
David Levinson
49. DemetriosX
Ursula @46: A fair point on the term "Uncle", but note that I said in the time and place he grew up in. A white person who called a black man "sir" (at least in the hearing of another white) would have brought a world of hurt on both of them. Heinlein was undoubtedly brought up to use the term when speaking politely to a black man. I still think he was trying to stand expectations on their heads with that character.
Captain Button
50. Doug M.
One, I'd like to see some evidence that "Uncle" was still a respectful term for a black man in 1957. I'm not crying bullshit, but that strikes me as a usage that had slipped well out of mainstream (outside the South) by then.

Two, Uncle Tom.

Three, it's great that Uncle gets a speech where he
stands up and talks about how a man is supposed to behave. Unfortunately, that's the speech where he's saying We Must Obey Duly Constituted Authority, No Matter What. And in the context of 1957... well, I think "unfortunate" is the best I can come up with.

My best guess is, I think Heinlein was trying to do right by Heinlein; I think the speech reflects Heinlein's own, deeply held beliefs, and that he probably felt he was doing a good thing by giving it to the (very likable!) black character.

I just think he maybe didn't quite think it through.

(Are there any letters or other records of Heinlein's reactions to _The Caine Mutiny_? That book was huge in the early and middle 1950s -- it was made a Broadway show and a movie, and went into multiple printings -- and it strikes me as something that Heinlein would have reacted to. Indeed, that whole next-to-last chapter of _Time for the Stars_ kinda reads like a reply to Wouk. "Captain insane, ship and crew doomed -- no matter! Carry out our mission!")

Doug M.
Mitch Wagner
51. MitchWagner
Doug M. - Regarding Caine Mutiny:

Jung lbh'er qrfpevovat vf gur *zvqqyr* bs Pnvar Zhgval -- gur penml pncgnva unf orra bireguebja, gur urebrf unir jba.

Ohg gur erznvaqre bs gur abiry, naq zbivr, haqrephg gung vagrecergngvba, phyzvangvat jvgu gur fcrrpu ol Yg. Onearl Terrajnyq (cynlrq ol Wbfr Sreere), jurer ur vaqvpngrf gung, juvyr gur pbhagel'f orfg naq oevtugrfg, vapyhqvat gur zhgvarref, jrer yvivat gurve pvivyvna yvirf, zra yvxr Dhrrt jrer qrsraqvat gurve pbhagel ntnvafg rarzvrf sbervta naq qbzrfgvp. Gura Terrajnyq guebjf n tynff bs jvar vagb gur snpr bs gur yrnq zhgvarre, Yg. Xrrsre, cynlrq ol Serq ZnpZheenl va gur zbivr. Naq Yg. Znelx, gur bgure pnerre Anil zna ba gur fuvc, jub wbvarq va gur zhgval naq gbbx pbzznaq sebz Dhrrt, unf unq uvf pnerre ehvarq, juvyr Xrrsre naq gur erfg fxngr guebhtu naq erghea gb gurve pvivyvna yvirf.

In other words, it's a story that's very consistent with Heinlein's own beliefs.
Captain Button
52. Doug M.
Do we need to rot-13 spoilers for a book published almost 60 years ago?

Anyway -- there are two "mutineers" in that book. One of them is the intellectual / moral coward Keefer; the other is the POV character Willie, a spoiled rich kid who comes of age.

(One reason this book worked so well IMO: Wouk based it on his own experiences, but didn't Mary Sue himself into it. Instead, he split himself into two characters, both engaging but deeply flawed.)

I'd say both the book and movie are fairly ambivalent about whether the "mutiny" was correct or not. (Willie ends up thinking it wasn't, but Willie is a far from reliable narrator.) Yes, the movie ends with the humiliation of Keefer -- but Bogart's Queeg was so obviously, utterly nuts that it's impossible to think he should have been left in charge.

Mind, it's certainly possible Heinlein might have shrugged off the ambiguity and taken the ending as final. (Entirely possible. I know someone who thinks that "A Few Good Men" is the tragic story of how a great Marine officer, played by Jack Nicholson, is brought down by that nasty little hotdog Tom Cruise.) I'm just wondering what his reaction actually was.

Doug M.
Captain Button
53. Bill Patteerson
Doug M -- well, he saw the stage play in 1954 and made no comment on it. In his 1957 essay "Spec Fic, its Nature, Faults and Virtues," he lists it as one of two good books with solid story construction. And that's all the comment he made about it. The factors that make it particularly memorable for you (and me) apparently didn't register as comment-worthy for him.
Captain Button
54. Doug M.
Bill, thank you. Huh -- interesting.

Doug M.
Captain Button
55. Bill Patterson
I'd like to point out a sterotype re gay men that is enforming this part of the discussion.

Anything up to a Kinsey 6 (if I remember the scale correctly) will be expected to "react" to a Way Hot Woman in some way. You don't think the cliche of gay men going gaga over Liza and Cher and now Lady Gaga, for that matter, is based on a lack of reaction, do you?

Even Kinsey 6's and positions that aren't on the Kinsey scale at all (i.e., exclusive fetishists) will react to her in some social way.

Human beings are socially networked in an extremely intense way, but we aren't always conscious of it because it's the water we swim in, the air we breathe. We receive and give social cues at every instant, even if we're not aware of it.

The fact that Mary/Alluquere's sexual radar detected no reaction in the possessed doesn't have anything to do at all with Heinlein's attitude toward homosexuals. Attempting to conflate these two very different things strips the actual meaning out of the text and renders some of the subtlety invisible.
Captain Button
56. JohnnyYen
I think someone has mentioned, perhaps it was in another thread, but it's very hard to read "Uncle" Alfred in any other manner than as an expression of love and affection for an older male who is not blood kin -

You really have to be determined to find racism and patronage in the use of the endearment, given context

honi soit qui mal y pense
Captain Button
57. Bill Pattrson
I think "Uncle Alfred" is less problematical than "Uncle Tom" in Podkayne -- and that one I would have to read as a literary hypogram (to use Michael Riffaterre's expression) pointing to a deliberately ironic and possibly satiric intention at work.

I think focusing on the "Uncle" part is leading away from anything useful.

(Parenthetically, ISTR Heinlein saying something of the sort about a Chinese pawnbroker in Between Planets)
Captain Button
58. JohnnyYen
Do you mean the cook, who owns the restaurant where Don works and sleeps in the storeroom? I don't recall the pawnbroker

About the cook though - even though he's a bit of a cartoon Asian, Heinlein portrays him with dignity and gives him a brave death. Which seems the norm in his writing - he did at times get his lesser characers fom central casting, but he rarely ever failed to give them some dimension as people.

A lazy writer, he was not.

and to change topic, congratulations on the book. Quibbles aside, it is a huge undertaking and long overdue. Good luck
Captain Button
59. Gerald Fnord
One way of judging a person in this wise is by assessing how they have assimilated and rebelled against their influences. In particular, I can't help but compare Heinlein's views with those of H.G. Wells.

Wells was a socialist, a believer in free love, and a bigot of the rationalist sort. Heinlein's 'see, these people of different stocks are all o.k. to the extent that they have all become "American"' is worlds' spans forward of Wells' assertion that Slavs and Southern Italians had barely a chance of becoming Americans, and that Orientals---Chinese and Jews (he eschewed the then-{more polite} 'Hebrews')---had no chance at all. I would bet that Heinlein's socialism and free loveliness stemmed as much from Wells as any other influence, or that at least they were an index to the thought of the times, and that it is to his credit that he was able to discard what to us was obvious dross, but to him might well have seemed the most conventional of those views.

I don't know Verne's work; maybe when my French improves. Can anyone tell me if I'm very wrong in assuming that he wrote much like any progressive Frenchman of his time, that is assuming a rough equality of peoples rooted in the Encyclopædists, but in practice knew for a fact that people showed their degree of development by the extent to which they had embraced the French language and culture?

(Note: I am firmly Leftist, but don't like white-washing---the Progressives were usually eugenicists and Prohibitionists, two disastrous doctrines. I like to think that Mr Wells might be appalled at the pleasure an Oriental such as myself can get from some of his work, just as I can enjoy the prospect of Wagner's equivalent discomfiture. Similarly, I can easily admit that the primary anti-racists of the early 20th were generally religious fundamentalists, who were saddled with the Eden story even as they derided the cultures they were trying to destroy ad maiorem gloria Dei---just as it were Spanish priests, hardly my favourites, who were stead-fast in insisting that Indios indeed had souls, and so could be enslaved and horribly mistreated, but not hunted for sport.)
Clark Myers
60. ClarkEMyers
On the one hand there is a technical term for folks who confuse the views of characters and authors: "On the other hand: Babies? Cooking? WTF?"

I suggest most strongly that in the context the statement quoted makes perfect sense - although the context be false to fact and represents a dated view of the planets and the solar system.

What is the context?
In Red Planet, one of the heroes of the book says, “Now, as I see it, this is a frontier society and any man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is an adult, too.”
Emphasis added.

Is that a credible and sensible statement to put in the mouth of a story character?

Consider frex the Happy Valley of Time Enough for Love and the covered wagon trip as an example of Mr. Heinlein's take on the frontier experience. Notwithstanding my own (mostly quoted) words above on the views of the characters I think we can agree that the description of the experience is intended to be credible and so to be at least somewhat accurate at least to the author's knowledge. Some aspects of reality are always glossed over as frex likely to omit pit latrines as freshers or recovering night soil for the kitchen garden.

I can claim no great academic knowledge of the frontier as Mr. Heinlein likely saw it but I do have family tales of the Missouri/Kansas region. My grandmother frex did go west in a covered wagon and settle not terribly far west of where Mr. Heinlein grew up.

For fighting someplace in the family there's still a chest of drawers with a bullet from Quantrel's raid on Lawrence and family members both killed and died in disputes - mostly formal the wild west was otherwise a polite society.

When the steel plow started cutting prairie grass frontier roles were pretty strictly defined. The hardest job at harvest was feeding the harvest crew not swinging a cradle scythe (no easy task itself, try it sometime). Cooking was hard work that mattered a great deal when ordering out is no alternative. When she got married my mother in law had to learn to cook a whole meal as she had pretty much cooked nothing but hot breads all her life as her part in feeding the 25-30 head at meals every day.

Sojurner Truth could surely swing a cradle scythe better than most - certainly far better than I could - and Annie Oakley was free to exhibit shooting/hunting skills considered all the more remarkable because a woman was doing it - but in a very real sense these were the exceptions that proved the rule because they really were exceptions.

In other (fictional) times and places and in that most civilized of places (It's Great to Be Back!) the moon the women in Menace from Earth and Rolling Stones enjoyed more scope.
Captain Button
61. Ryan B.
Not to be a floccinaucinihilipilificator, but the statement that Heinlein does not include disabled or Muslim characters in 'Space Cadet' is factually incorrect. The Commandant of the Patrol is blind, and when an incoming craft crashes and explodes, the senior cadet present says quietly, "Merciful Allah", which strongly implies Islamic beliefs. Certainly Heinlein had a formula, which does not necessarily reflect his beliefs, per se, but only his belief in what would be acceptable to an editor. Carry on, Mister.
Captain Button
62. L. Day
It's just transgender, no "-ed".
Captain Button
63. Steve Sailer
This post is self-parody, right?

Heinlein was the most aggressive diversiphile of any author of his era.
Captain Button
64. Steve Sailer
The notion that "the disabled" where a shunned and dishonored group in Heinlein's pro-military fiction is pretty funny.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment