Tue
Aug 17 2010 8:43am

The Undead Robert Heinlein

Following up on Jo Walton’s post on why Heinlein discussions frequently become acrimonious, I think there’s another reason why Heinlein today presents a challenge to current readers and critics, which is that his work is literature in transition—it’s in a middle ground between being contemporary work and being part of the background of the genre. Or, to put it another way, the problem with Heinlein right now is that he’s not quite Neal Stephenson, and he's not quite Jules Verne—he’s in a middle place, and that makes him and his work contentious.

Or, to put it in yet another way: Heinlein passed away 22 years ago, long enough ago that it’s reasonable to say that a majority of his readers under 35 never read him while he was still alive. To them, he’s always been history, and he’s always been, quite literally, less than vital to their understanding of the genre. The majority of his readers over 40, on the other hand, read him and were aware of him while he was still a lion of the literature—not just a Grand Master of the genre but the Grand Master, the first Grand Master, who while contentious and controversial as he may have been, was still someone to whom attention was to be paid.

Now, what I just wrote above is a simplification of a more complex situation, but in the general outlines I think it’s accurate—we’re in a place and time with Heinlein where he and his work are still well within living memory for some and not for others, and the schism lines in terms of opinions and allowances for him, his life and his attitudes fall out roughly along generational lines, with some skewing of that line conforming to politics. He’s not yet safely dead, like, for example, H.G. Wells, whose politics and social opinions would give many today the hives, but who’s been dead long enough that even those writers he directly influenced have been dead for a number of decades. Heinlein’s disciples are still at it and still having an impact on the genre.

Or to put it more simply, after 22 years, Heinlein’s not quite dead yet, and that’s his problem, and ours.


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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19 comments
John Adams
1. JohnArkansawyer
I wonder, John, how many younger readers have their primary experience of Heinlein through the various "New Heinleins"--John Varley especially, but also yourself, Cory Doctorow*, Charlie Stross, John Barnes (who called him the anti-Heinlein?) and others, and how that shapes their opinions.

*Don't tell me a man who writes a novel with a character named Kettlebelly who is integral to the development of the integrating pantograph from "Gulf" isn't another entry in the YANH sweepstakes.
John Scalzi
2. Scalzi
I can't speak for the other "New Heinleins," JohnArkansawayer, but I know of several of my readers who were introduced to Heinlein through my acknowledgment of him in Old Man's War. I don't think this is entirely surprising; I read Heinlein before I read Wells or Verne.
Captain Button
3. Captain Button
I'm not sure about this theory, as it has been my impression that acrimonious Heinlein debates go way back.

They have certainly been around on the bulletin boards, online services, and Internet since I started mucking about on them in the late 1980s to late 1990s.

And while my SF convention experiences are decades back, as I recall it you got the same stuff at panels then.

But I'm not sure how to measure either quantity or virulence of debate.

As one quick data point, Spider Robinson wrote Rah, Rah, R. A. H.! in 1980 and he is arguing against many of the same criticisms we are still going on about today.

(To save time, I'm not saying he's right or wrong in that essay, just pointing out that it shows some of the things people were arguing about then.)

Were there great Vernian and Wellsian flame wars in the 1930s and 1970s?
Captain Button
4. Dr Hoo
@2 Scalzi
I think your comment here illustrates the generational gap nicely. I read Old Man's War at the beach this spring and thought, "This is just like Heinlein; I need to read more John Scalzi." The younger generation reads Old Man's War and thinks, "I like this book; I need to read something by Heinlein."
John Scalzi
5. Scalzi
Captain Button:

As noted in the entry, Heinlein was controversial while still alive, and many of these arguments are of long standing. Be aware that in presenting this argument, I am not saying it's the only cause of the acrimony, but one of the causes.
jon meltzer
6. jmeltzer
I'm afraid having this posting immediately follow "Tom Sawyer and the Undead and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" brings up visions of "Starship Zombie Troopers", or worse. I suppose when Heinlein's works enter the public domain ...
Captain Button
7. allbarbaramay
You know, I find this whole debate over Heinlein interesting for a number of reasons.

1) I don't think to research writer's and their works on the Internet because I'd rather be reading the books than the arguments about them.

2) There's a debate about Heinlein's works? Really?

Now that I've learned these things, I'm also shocked to find I'm counted among the readers of a generation who think his work is dated and generally doesn't hold up in a modern society. Strange. I'll turn 29 Friday, but when I decided to give Sci-Fi a try, I read Aasimov, Clark, Heinlein and Dick. Perhaps my views are shaped by my father (a fan of Dick from way back), but I understood Heinlein to be one of the best in the genre, and I never found myself disappointed.

There are a number of blogs on Tor.com weighing his attitudes towards EVERYTHING, but no one referencing "Stranger in a Strange Land" where I always kind of got the impression that the author just wanted everyone to love one another and let the petty shit go. Go figure.

And Scalzi--I found your book "Do Electric Sheep Dream of Androids" in the library, and that's how I found your work. I didn't know you where a "New Heinlein" (although it makes much more sense after reading your work), but a "New Dick". And I found it long, long after I read my first Heinlein novel.
Captain Button
8. N. Mamatas
@6 Surely given the last week of fussing around, the proper RAH mash-up would be Pride & Prejudice & Starship Troopers.

Also, put me on the list of people for whom RAH was not a formative experience as a fan of SF. For me it was Dick and Gibson and Orson Scott Card, and I only haphazardly made my way "backwards" as a child and young teen. (And back to Ellison, Matheson, Bradbury and other folks in that SoCal stream, honestly. I didn't even realize SF was supposed to be optimistic until I was 24!)
Christopher Doty
9. suomichris
"To them, he’s always been history, and he’s always been, quite literally, less than vital to their understanding of the genre."

My introduction to the genre included heavy doses of Heinlein (and other contemporaries, especially Bradbury of recent NSFW video fame), though I can say pretty confidently that I didn't read Heinlein while he was alive (or that I was even aware of his death, since I was born in 1982), but I'm willing to admit that I might be a bit old-school about this.

Then again, I think I might have a different sense of the history of the genre — I tend to treat it as starting around the middle of the last century with Bradbury and Heinlein, with earlier folks like Verne and Wells (who I don't consider vital in my understanding of the genre) being earlier pioneers but not, perhaps, kicking off the whole genre. Or else maybe kicking it off, but then the ball gets fumbled for awhile. (Hey, I said a sports idea!)

I do take your point, though — if younger readers tend to think of Heinlein like I think of Wells or Verne, I can see how that's part of the issue.

@Mamatas: Please write that book.
David Dyer-Bennet
10. dd-b
Hmmm; I probably read some Verne before Heinlein. Not nearly so sure about Wells. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island had sort of become part of children's literature. And in 1963 there was less Heinlein to read (I'm dating things by memories of which library books were in).

Heinlein was active in politics before he started writing SF, after all. And his work included important human issues, political and otherwise, and he had that great "of course" voice -- so when he said "of course" some political position, people who hated that position got incensed. And he treated a good number of political positions seriously in his books, so it wasn't one simple cut through the population; there's a good chance to offend nearly everybody in there somewhere.

And then he was noisily active at one point in supporting the war in Vietnam, which was bringing (in conjunction with other social issues) things quite close to riots in the streets in a lot of parts of America. And this was at the right time to be formative for a lot of people in fandom. So a lot of people took that as their view of him, and never recovered. And the phrase "hippie-proof fence" would have served to offend lots of people as well.

People tend to take books rather too personally, and associate an author too closely with his characters. I agree with Jo that Heinlein was quite good at writing positions he didn't fully agree with. And of course his own political views changed quite a bit over his career, which people not thinking carefully about the author can easily overlook.

By being foundational to the genre, the third (and last) of the Novas of science fiction, a celebrity, Guest of Honor at the second World Science Fiction Convention (only two years after he started writing SF), the Dean of science fiction, a four-time Hugo award winner for best novel (with both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land winning)...there's a lot to talk about. To disagree about. To argue about.
Dorothy Johnston
11. CloudMist
All this discussion of Heinlein is rousing fond memories of the GEnie online service in the early to mid-90's. Most days I stuck to the ST roundtables but on the weekends I'd wander over to the SF authors and generally find a nice flamewar going on in the Heinlein topic. Some things never change. :)
Captain Button
12. Tocks Nedlog
allbarbaramay wrote: "I'm also shocked to find I'm counted among the readers of a generation who think his work is dated and generally doesn't hold up in a modern society."

It's interesting to note how far Scalzi's comment "the schism lines in terms of opinions and allowances for him, his life and his attitudes fall out roughly along generational lines," can be stretched. He said "roughly", as in it's the younger generation that is more apt to think of some elements in his writing as 'old-fashioned'.
Nancy Lebovitz
13. NancyLebovitz
I have a notion that there's so much debate about Heinlein because he Made Pronouncements. And he liked stirring things up.

There were plenty of writers who were as bad or worse about sex and race who don't seem to attract as much controversy.

I think part of the complexity is when he was good he was very very good, and when he was bad he was horrid, so you've got people whose lives were made better by what they got from Heinlein, and people who feel as though he just stomped on their foot and then ground his heel in.
Robert James
14. DocJames
Nancy is correct -- RAH said once that his technique as a writer was to hide in a darkened doorway, grab a passing reader by the lapels, and shake him until his teeth rattle -- then let him go.

He was always out to upset people's apple carts, as my grandma used to say.

In the later 50s'/early sixties, there was a newsletter shared by sf pros called "PITFCS" -- it's been released by Advent. And you can find a massive debate over Starship Troopers there.

With all due respect to John Scalzi -- and I regard him as one of the best writers working today -- while there does seem to be a gap between older readers (who include myself, and who knew the field before it became unreadable in its entirety from the sheer volume), and younger readers who often have never read any Heinlein at all, because they have simply come to SF from other angles -- I have to say that this is not the source of the arguments at all, in my opinion.

These have gone on for decades.

As I suggested above, there is a difference between those of us who read SF before Star Wars, when one could read every SF book coming out, and who read all the reissues of the sixties and seventies, and those who read just a small portion of the vast output of the last thirty years. When you go to an SF con, and multiple fans who have been reading SF for over a decade tell you that they have never read RAH, and they've never even heard of Sturgeon, Bester, or C.L. Moore, you have to realize most readers simply don't know the development of SF at all. They're just enjoying the view....
Captain Button
15. Michael S. Schiffer
The PITFCS debate is also available on Alexei Panshin's site:


While the tone is politer than my experience of the Permanent Floating Heinlein Flamew...Discussion these last few decades, I do find it fascinating how much it has in common with later iterations of the subject.
Gilmoure Gylbard
16. Gilmoure
For another old New Heinleinian (Heinleineite?), check out David R. Palmer and his novel Emergence. He hasn't published much and what he did was back in the 80's. Candidia Smith ROCKS!
Robert James
17. DocJames
Emergence is an amazing book. There are rumors Palmer is writing again.
Captain Button
18. jgwright
David's sequel to Emergence, Tracking, was serialized in three parts, beginning in the July/August 2008 issue of Analog. Hasn't found a publisher yet, and is ripe for a continuance.

He is a slow writer but amazing.

I grew up on Heinlein juveniles as well as Andre Norton, and although I see flaws in them now, they still evoked the best of what a person could be for me. To those who flame Heinlein, I say, "Write something better!" Scalzi is one of my favorites as well as Bujold, and I read whatever they write.
--Jerry
Captain Button
19. M J Harrington
I am very pleased to have found your website.
I think the reason for the acrimonious debates lies in Heinlein's own aggression. To me this first became evident in Starship Troopers. I was overwhelmed when I first read it in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959. Now I just can't stand it.Nor do I like much of what came later, including Stranger.

On the other hand, I can re-read Heinlein's work from the 1940s and 1950s with huge enjoyment. Two recent spells in hospital were made more tolerable by Double Star and Have Space Suit Will Travel. I only wish I could write to thank him. His authorial voice was relaxed, like a good friend telling you a story. He did not shout at you in those days.

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