William Patterson’s big Heinlein biography isn’t just the life story of one man. It’s a history of United States in the first half of the 20th century. Not a complete history, but in some ways it’s better than complete, because it’s more intimate. Heinlein was like a real-life Forrest Gump, in the middle of many of the trends that shaped America.
Heinlein was born in Kansas, in 1907, the heart of Middle America.
He was a cadet at Annapolis during the years between the great wars. His classmates believed ruefully that they’d be the first academy class that would never see combat. Of course, World War II belied those beliefs. Heinlein’s military experience put him in the middle of the American rise to world power.
Tuberculosis put an end to his naval career, which plunged Heinlein into the middle of the Great Depression. Until Heinlein’s Navy discharge, he was a civil servant who didn’t have to worry about where his next paycheck was coming from. But after the war, he and then-wife Leslyn were on their own with only his small medical pension. Heinlein had to learn to support himself. This wasn’t the first time he was on his own financially—his family growing up was huge, his parents were distant, and they were always broke. Heinlein took a variety of jobs during his adolescence, including work as a math tutor, artist’s model, insurance salesman, and professional soft-shoe or tap dancer in a roadhouse.
Heinlein worked on the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of socialist Upton Sinclair, whose End Poverty In California (EPIC) party sought drastic remedies to the Great Depression. Later, Heinlein ran for state office himself. This put him in the middle of big-state and even national politics.
Heinlein didn’t serve during World War II because of his health, but he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, recruiting Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and others to build military technology. His co-workers included a young Naval officer named Virginia Gerstenfield, whom he would later marry, spending the last 40 years of his life as her husband. In Philadelphia, Heinlein was in the middle of the war at home.
And of course as the top science fiction writer of his lifetime, Heinlein was in the middle of the growth of that genre, from crazy Buck Rogers stuff for kids and nerds to mainstream pop culture, dominating the Hollywood box office and book bestseller lists.
Patterson’s biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve covers that period of his life. It looks pretty intimidating at first—it’s a massive brick of a book and it doesn’t even cover Heinlein’s whole life, just the first half of it—but it’s a fascinating read, not just for Heinlein fans, or science fiction fans, but for anyone curious about life in this great country during a turbulent half-century.
Heinlein didn’t just get himself in the middle of history. He also had a knack for getting into the middle of unlikely situations. If you think you’ve got him pegged as a political conservative and ex-military man, think again.
On the one hand, Heinlein was a hard-headed scientific rationalist. One of my favorite Heinlein quotes:
What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history”—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!
But he was also sympathetic to occult beliefs. His second wife, Leslyn, his partner during his political and early science fiction careers, was a practicing witch, and he believed in life after death. He made a pact with several friends that whichever of them died first would get in touch with the others from beyond.
Heinlein not only espoused free love, but he also practiced it from very early on. Both of his first marriages were open marriages, decades before the free love generation of the 60s.
One of my favorite—and weirdest—passages in Patterson’s biography comes after Heinlein has graduated Annapolis, but before he accepts his military commission on the U.S.S. Lexington. The Lexington was only the second aircraft carrier commissioned and was the biggest ship afloat, with a crew of 3,000 and the most advanced technology available in 1929, including primitive ballistic computers.
There are many things you might imagine a young Navy officer doing in the time between graduation and his first commission. One thing you wouldn’t imagine is what Heinlein actually did: He took an apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village for 11 weeks, immersing himself in the bohemian culture there, sculpting and painting nude women models, playing at sex, becoming an enthusiastic Socialist, and experimenting with mental telepathy.
Then he returned to the Navy. Heinlein apparently saw no contradiction between those lives.
Heinlein was a fascinating individual, and he’s been one of my heroes all my life. I’m glad I had a chance to get to know him better through Patterson’s biography.
Robert A. Heinlein portrait by Donato Giancola
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.