Aug 11 2010 2:29pm

Heinlein: Strangely Human

Hello, all:

I’m going to start off my contribution to this little online discussion of Heinlein by noting the gift this first volume of the Heinlein biography gave me, which is the ability to think of Robert Heinlein in terms of being a struggling writer, rather than Robert Heinlein, Grandmaster of science fiction.

This is no small feat. To give a little perspective on the matter, Robert Heinlein was given the Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America (now the Damon Knight Grand Master Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), back in 1975, when Heinlein was sixty-eight years old and I was six, and still years from my first encounter with his work—which was Farmer in the Sky, which I read in fourth grade.

By that time Farmer in the Sky was nearly three decades old, and the vast majority of Heinlein’s work had already been published, including the three indisputable classics of his career: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. For as long as I knew of him, Robert Heinlein was Robert Heinlein, the science fiction equivalent of The Beatles, in that he didn’t invent his genre any more than they invented theirs, but after each were done, everything after in their respective genres was assessed by how it compared (or reacted) to their output.

It’s impressive, but it’s also distorting. I never met Robert Heinlein, who died when I was in college and long before my science fiction writing career, nor did I ever meet anyone who knew Robert Heinlein until 2003, when I lucked into a long conversation with Robert Silverberg(!) at a party at TorCon 3, my first-ever science fiction convention. So for over two decades, my view of the man was essentially one of a writing monolith—someone who was a writing idol (along with H.L. Mencken and John Lennon, and yes, what a weird writing idol triumvirate that is), but who didn’t really have any particular human qualities for me.

Even the story of how he started writing science fiction—he needed money, saw a science fiction magazine contest, wrote a story and then submitted that story to another magazine that paid more than he could have won in the contest—seemed more of a picturesque character note than the travail of an actual human. Ultimately, it didn’t really seem like Heinlein struggled much. But then why would it; when you view things from a distance—and a hazy, rose colored distance at that—those little details will elude you.

Learning Curve, however, is jammed with detail about Heinlein’s early years (which in this case take him up to 41 years of age, the same age I am now), and definitively put to rest for me the idea that it all came easy for him, or alternately that any deprivation that he suffered was destined to become just a colorful background note to the life of a Great Man. In point of fact, Heinlein’s day-to-day writing life in his 20s and 30s was not notably different than the day-to-day writing life of a large majority of writers whom I have come to know: Lots of writing, lots of conversation with clever, unconventional people who are both your friends and your rivals, a fair amount of angst about when the hell this writing thing is actually going to work out, and over it all worries about money, and the getting of same.

Here’s an excerpt of a letter Heinlein wrote to Ginny Gerstenfeld, the woman who would become his third (and final) wife, when he was 41 and waiting for some desperately-needed money from a possible screenplay:

I’m tired and have had several disappointments, frustrations and dilemmas lately and I’m feeling poor. A sale would help a lot, especially the sale of this movie… I had hoped to sell this screenplay before coming out flatfooted with planscoming, as it were, to lay a bag of gold at your feet. I know you have never held out for a thin dime, but the subject of money matters to me when I haven’t got it. The presence of poverty and the fear of poverty goes way back into my childhood; I wanted us to start out right, with a good bank balance and a healthy chunk of paid-up life insurance as an estate. Well, maybe I’ll get it yet.

This isn’t the letter of a man confidently astride a literary genre like a colossus; it’s the letter of a guy who wants to marry a woman he loves, is depressed that he doesn’t have what he feels he needs to make it work, and is mopey about it. It’s the letter of a guy who has had some successes, has made a name for himself, but is still waiting for what used to be called the “main chance”—the opportunity that changes his fortunes. Anyone who’s gotten past 40 and is still looking for that main chance is excused for being a little mopey about it. In point of fact Heinlein’s fortunes—financially and as a writer—were on the verge of taking an upswing not too long after this letter. But of course, he wouldn’t have known it at the time.

Now, the fact that it’s in some ways clarifying to me that this Great Man of science fiction could make it into his fifth decade with a certain amount of frustration and uncertainty—like nearly every other human, much less every other writer—says more about me than it does about Heinlein, and I quite cheerfully cop to a certain naivete in terms of my vision of who Heinlein was, and additionally cop to that naivete being rooted in no small part in laziness, i.e., hey, should I have to think that hard about Heinlein the human being when he left all these much more entertaining works of fiction lying around? I am a naturally lazy person, and for better or worse, the only way I will ever know Robert Heinlein, short of a Lazarus Long-like fiddle with the time stream, is through others.

Be that as it may, the exposure to Heinlein’s prosaic humanity—the accounting of his frustrations, worries and failings—is useful as a reminder that at the end of the day, or of a career, or of a life, everything that came before came out of someone who is not so different than any of us that his achievements are unapproachable for mere mortals. Yes, I know, again, a naïve statement. On the other hand, imagine yourself as a science fiction writer, looking down the barrel of Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s easier to deal with those if you say, “Oh, well, that was Heinlein, you know.”

Well, yes, it was Heinlein, a guy who had his fair share of digressions, disappointments, petty stupidities and dissipations, and who hit 40 not knowing who it was he would finally become. I’ve admired Heinlein for a long time, and I’ve respected him and much of his philosophical worldview, particularly the idea of “pay it forward,” which he helped ingrain into the science fiction community. But now I can also say that I sympathize with the man, and I understand him a little better—and also that I like him. He has his flaws, of course. But don’t we all.

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.

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Christine Valada
1. Christine Valada
I met RAH & Ginny in New York one day in the spring of 1974 after he appeared on one of those local talk shows. He was in town to get an award from the rare blood people, since he had done so much to promote blood donation. A friend & I attended, each with a favorite book to be autographed. Mine was a hardback of "Red Planet," which now bears autographs from both RAH and "Willis." Whatever my friend brought, and I can't remember what it was, RAH looked at it and said "I wrote that from hunger."

While I was SFWA's lawyer, I carried on an e-mail correspondence with Ginny which I remember fondly. I'm glad to have had a brief encounter with RAH, and I'm sorry you missed out on him, John. This was a nice piece to read.
Mitch Wagner
2. MitchWagner
Christine, my parents used to have an expression. To say a thing was "from hunger" meant that thing was crap. I never understood the derivation of the phrase until reading your comment just now, backed by my knowledge of Heinlein's life. It means the person who made the thing was desperate for money for food, so he made something that was crap.
Christine Valada
3. David G. Hartwell

Heinlein said that to me too, and I was his editor, when I praised "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag." I heard him say it to others. As a matter of principle, he wrote for money, always. Much of his first two decades of work were written when he really needed the money. He liked to underplay himself in the face of praise. And yet he did not compromise the transaction between him and his audience, except perhaps in Sixth Column, which we now know was drafted by John Campbell and fixed up by Heinlein under his name, for money. That at least is how I read the biography.
Christine Valada
4. JoshuaGerst
I've read so many comments that tell of reading Heinlein as a child. I did not have this experience until I was 21 and a colleague, a fellow English teacher, told me I "had" to. I bought Starship Troopers and stayed up all night reading it. I gobbled up almost all of Heinlein's novels in under a year. Now I am 27 and rereading them many times over. I sincerely hope this books colors Heinlein's work the way Heinlein's work has colored my experiences and other reading. I think as readers we owe the man a great deal and "paying it forward" is exactly what he did and what I intend to continue doing.
steve davidson
5. crotchetyoldfan
Nice to see this volume coming out and nice to see someone who is carrying the torch (so well) doing a write up on it.

I think RAH is still a "have to" read - even the thirtieth time around.

I'll be looking forward to Patterson's read - and the coming discussions all over the web as we once again debate who the man really was.
Charlie Stross
6. cstross
John, I, too, found it strangely heartening to see so many familiar perspectives in Heinlein's life. Some elements of the career of the freelance writer seem to be universal ...
Robert James
7. DocJames
Absolutely fascinating blog. As to the idea that Heinlein always said he wrote for money, I have always suspected that this was a response to the growing nutters who wanted more than that from him. One of the reasons he and Ginny (yes, Ginny and I were on a first-name basis, at her request) had to live in such out-of-the way places with walls around them is the hippies and guru-seeking lost children who kept showing up, ready to do whatever he said. I suspect he knew what he was doing was art; I know for a fact that he argued, in various places, that he was A) getting people to ask questions, and B), in the juveniles, training the next generation of readers in how to think, question, and dream. The money was just a public cover, and a recognition that he had to satisfy his audience if he wanted to keep selling. What is remarkable is his late fifties/early sixties declaration of independence from the rules of marketplace ("my stuff, my way"), and the fact that his sales skyrocketed after he did that. The juveniles gave him financial independence, but the books he wrote from the sixties on (wildly different, often exasperating, and deeper than most readers realize) made him rich. Much of that was before the economic boom of SF in the seventies and eighties; a novel many SF readers disparage, "I Will Fear No Evil", is a book most yoga enthusiasts know (at least here in Los Angeles, anyways). But even the works written to what seemed to be market demands contain radical undertones many readers missed the first time through them.
Jon Evans
8. rezendi
"I Will Fear No Evil", is a book most yoga enthusiasts know (at least here in Los Angeles, anyways)

Boggle, boggle, boggle. Well, that's a claim I (a yoga enthusiast who used to live in Los Angeles) have never before encountered. And I really never dreamed that I would. Out of curiosity, is that from anecdotal evidence or hard data?
Christine Valada
9. JohnnYen
Thanks for that piece, John.
I discovered Heinlein in grade five or six; Space Cadet, from the school library. That was 42 years ago and for the first 20 or so years of that span regarded him as somethng akin to a god, or one of his male heroes, whihc amounts to about the same thing; widely read, highly intelligent, ridiculously competent, morally fearless, pencil- thin moustache optional.

Over the years I became aware of a number of instances of great kindness - loans to other writers, the gift of story ideas to a blocked Theodore Sturgeon, and so on - and at the same time, people who thought Heinlein a terrible human being. Alexei Panshin still carries an enormous grudge (grudge is insufficient, really - I think he would like Heinlein's body dug up so it could be properly hung.)

For the most part it seems that once we all get past that early worship and confusion of writer and characters, heinlein turns out to be a pretty much who we thought he was, bar the usuall human failings and inconsistencies.

And all things taken into account, I like him, too.
Stuart Dimond
10. sdimond
John, I think you've touched on the important element of Heinlein's personality and writing persona that is too often ignored. He spent his whole life wrestling with and rebelling against his Methodist, mid-western upbringing. He never threw off the core of it, which is that we are all in this together. Women and children first! No greater love has a man for humanity than to give up his life for it.

The Libertarians I meet who are Heinlein fans all seem to miss this aspect. They worship the competent man and like to think that is what they are. Heinlein understood that being competent is small comfort when your belly is empty.
Gilmoure Gylbard
11. Gilmoure
Heh. Heinlein, Lennon and Tolkien were my three main influences growing up. I saw Lennon as a self reliant man in manner of Heinlein and Piper. He was doing his own thing and if you liked it you liked it and if you didn't, that was cool too.
Christine Valada
12. TaraLi Jie
I don't know which libertarians you know - but all of the libertarians *I* know of understand the importance of generosity, and that we're all in this together - they just abhor those would would try to *force* generosity. I think RAH would too.

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