Aug 18 2010 8:16am

The Church of Heinlein (mildly) Reformed

Sometime ago I did an article about Heinlein for a blog (not this one) and tried to boil down the influence Heinlein had on me.

Because I was feeling less than sanguine about it–and also had more time than for this blogging, not being, then, pressed with deadlines–I not only gave it to friends to do first reading on, but I sent it to one of my publishers, Toni Weisskopf at Baen, to look over (a necessity since I’m capable of untold cruelty to the common comma, have an ongoing war with double letters and have written many a disreputable apostrophe–all of which immediately become invisible upon the paper, of course).

I’d made some general pronouncement about what Heinlein believed, and Toni rapped me on the knuckles with the editorial ruler and pointed out that in his long and varied life, Heinlein believed practically everything at one time or another.

She was right. Having read all his works one time or a hundred, I came to the conclusion that you can find in Heinlein anything you want to find.

His work is so large, so varied, so full of rich layers that–as in the Bible–you can find room to call him everything you wish. (If your goal in literary criticism is to call people names, of course. It is not mine, but chacun son goût).

Oh, some things he remained constant in–like the belief people would be better off naked. The explanation for this is found in his biography and in his having been a nudist. These are usually incidental things to his world creation, and what I have found is that we all have those. They give flavor to a writer’s work and make it obvious there is something beneath the scaffolding of the work.

However, in the main things, he endorsed no philosophy, no religion, no political system. If you think he did, you didn’t read closely. As much as Patterson says he worshiped the American system of government (and I got that impression, too) he did say in more than one place in his fiction that the best form of government is a well run empire and that an hereditary monarchy run on rational lines would be perfect.

In the end, what I got from Heinlein’s work–and from Heinlein’s bio, as well–was what Patterson referred to as that “wisdom” which used to be passed down the generations in more traditional societies and which I, as a child of working parents, in the Sixties, missed: that history moves on and human beings are fallible; that there is no perfect system of government; that as adults we have responsibility for ourselves and those in our sphere, and that responsibility cannot be delegated to church, tribe, government or university; that each human is absolutely responsible for oneself, both in actions and in thoughts; that it is the duty of every human being to think and examine his/her position in the world.

I suppose I’ve also caught from him the belief that most people are at heart decent however misguided and that there very few true rotters (something I’ve learned recently is considered a raging liberal belief, and which nonetheless fits my observations over forty odd [occasionally very odd] years of life in three continents), and that the future is always better than the past.

Most of all–more than beliefs, dogmas and dictates–Heinlein did what all of us as science fiction writers should aspire to do: he made people think.

In that sense, Patterson captured the feel of Heinlein-the-man perfectly–an odd thing for a non-fiction book to do–and showed us how Heinlein faced the future and technological change unafraid, capable of making choices and taking positions and revising them when new facts emerged.

That is Heinlein’s greatest legacy and the reason Learning Curve is an important work. I look forward to the future volumes.

Sarah A. Hoyt will be very happy if—supposing anyone remembers them—her books make people think.  In between raising two boys, a clowder of cats, and stealing some time to spend with her husband, she has written seventeen novels.  For more information on her work, visit

1. Brian2
Very well said. I'm not sure I'm quite as optimistic myself about the future always being better than the past, looking at history, but perhaps an argument could be made for an overall trend. In any case, it's a good working attitude.
David Dyer-Bennet
2. dd-b
Well said indeed.

I've said before that I was raised as much by Heinlein and Doc Smith as by my parents, but would be hard pressed to describe it as well.

Heinlein certainly encouraged my tendency to want to think things through.

I never did catch Heinlein's virulent patriotism; I was a teenager in 1968, and so have spent most of my life watching the US government tear itself apart and go deeper and deeper into insanity. Often over ill-thought-out foreign wars. I like my idea of America -- but fewer and fewer people seem to care for it, especially in the public sphere.
3. Justin T.
Well written. Thank you.
Nancy Lebovitz
4. NancyLebovitz
I agree with you.

One more thing that Heinlein was consistent about: slavery is bad.
5. Tomas - University Place
Well said, thank you.

I started reading Heinlein in the late fifties, and while he did direct my thinking in particular direction, more than anything else HE MADE ME THINK.

Many times I would have put down one of his books to take up some pressing need in real life, and in the middle of doing that other thing, my mind would suddenly ask a question, triggered by something Heinlein had written.

My job was always to think it through and decide what *I* believed, based on all facts I had. Often I discovered I needed to search for more facts.

Seriously, more than anything else, Robert taught me to think for myself. Sometimes I disagreed with what he seemed to be saying, but more often I found myself agreeing, though possibly with my own changes and embellishments.
6. Gerald Fnord
What I got from his work when I was little was a good sense of the contingency of what is 'normal', as well as a n healthy scepticism of the normative power of 'normal', and of absolute statements about humans more generally.

That's why, as I got older, and so did he, I found myself unable to love his work as whole-heartedly as I had when I was eight years of age: I kept on seeing statements about some notional 'human nature' that both didn't ring true with me and seemed awfully absolute, as well as boldly normative statements rooted in...well, a Midwestern up-bringing early in the previous century, and the reaction against it, and little else.

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