Thu
Aug 12 2010 11:20am

Through a backward telescope: Heinlein’s context

History is science fiction’s dirty little trade secret, as many an author in search of a plot has discovered. But more than that: history is also the clue to unlocking the writing of our forebears.

For me, the fascination of Patterson’s biography lies in the social and historical context it provides for Heinlein’s work. I was born in 1964, by which time he was 57; there’s more than half a century between us (not to mention a continental gulf—he being a midwesterner, Californian by adoption, and me being British), and consequently I’ve always found many of the attitudes exemplified in his fiction strange. But no longer; Learning Curve provides the key to unlocking Heinlein’s social attitudes and ideas, because it’s as much a social history of the United States of America during the first half of Heinlein’s life as it is a biography.

And it all goes to show just how strange Robert A. Heinlein was.

From a devoutly religious upbringing, we have a teenager who threw off religious belief and embraced atheism at a time when this would have been profoundly shocking. From the 1920s we have an enthusiastic practitioner of free love and “companionate” (read: open) marriage—in an age when cohabiting without a marriage license was a felony. And from an early age, we have an enthusiastic naturist, during a period when it was considered wicked and shameful. Somehow a radical free-thinker emerged from a bright but poor background (he was working from age 10, only able to read and study on the streetcar to and from school)—and promptly bent his every effort towards the goal of getting into Annapolis as a naval officer cadet!

Invalided out in his late twenties with a small pension, he drifted—not aimlessly, but at high speed and with great (even monomaniacal) enthusiasm. With the onset of the Depression he entered politics: not, as most readers might assume on a right/libertarian platform, but by campaigning for Upton Sinclair’s socialist platform in California in 1932. There’s a strong streak of idealism in much of Heinlein’s early fiction (from 1938 onwards), an almost exasperated opinion that if only intelligent and determined folks would do the right thing, the ills and ailments of society could be replaced by a rational and enlightened civilisation. But there’s also a growing disillusionment; political campaigning taught him to hide his own opinions and reflect those of the people who surrounded him, and by the mid-forties, when pinned down by a friend, his most illuminating letters showed dislike (ranging between deep hatred and mere disdain and mistrust) for all ideologies—communism, fascism, technocracy, and (to a lesser extent) libertarianism.

As for the writing:

What Heinlein learned from politics he applied to his fiction: find out what the folks you’re selling to want to hear, then sell it to them. Even so, he argued repeatedly with John W. Campbell over the content of the (in my politically-correct 21st century opinion, deeply odious) short novel Sixth Column—Campbell’s original suggestion was for a Yellow Peril pot-boiler, fueled by crude xenophobia and racism, but these elements stuck in Heinlein’s throat, and he argued back for a message about the struggle for liberty in the face of an imperial invader. Later, while 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. As for why he might hold his nose and write to order—in 1947 he was living in a 4’ x 7’ trailer, nearly broke and waiting for his divorce to come through. There’s nothing like poverty to concentrate the mind...

Consequently, it’s somewhat difficult to ferret out Heinlein’s actual opinions from his early fiction. All we can see is the collapsed two-dimensional snapshot of his history, left behind, frozen in print. Of the struggles and arguments that gave rise to the fiction, the casual reader is unaware.


Charles Stross is a British science fiction writer and the author of the Lovecraftian “Bob Howard—Laundry” thriller series, as well as the science fiction Merchants Princes series, and many other titles. His short story, “Palimpsest,” is nominated for a 2010 Hugo Award in the Best Novella category.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium: ‹ previous | index | next ›
12 comments
j p
1. sps49
Yeah, I disliked Sixth Column.

The "religion-as-front" bit was clever, but adjusting the coagulating ray based on race? Really?
Robert James
2. DocJames
Sixth Column is....problematic. Heinlein needed the money, Campbell wanted the sale; Heinlein rewrote Campbell, who was most definitely a racist, away from that racism as much as was possible, couching it in genetics, and inserting Franklin Delano Roosevelt Matsui. There are numerous stories from the prewar period, as well as later on, which show RAH was openly hostile to racism, antisemitism, and sexism; he truly believed there was only one race, and that was the human race. But it was WWII, and the Japanese were the enemy, and Campbell controlled the paychecks.
Captain Button
3. Captain Button
DocJames@2: Pedantic nitpick: Technically, The US wasn't in WWII when Sixth Column was written, since it was serialized Jan-Mar 1941.
Robert James
4. DocJames
Thanks for the reminder that I am human....you are absolutely correct. I think I was conflating a letter RAH wrote about the book a few decades later with the sense many in the Navy had in the thirties that Japan would eventually have to be fought. I appreciate the correction! Truth is more important than ego :)
Captain Button
5. JohnnyYen
Of all Heinlein's writing, the ones that keep comin g up as problematic for contemorary readers are Sxith Column, which we've more or less accepted as a bit of whoredom on RAH's part and the wost of which likely being Campbell's doing, and Farnham's, a bit of turnabout that fails -

the one that hasn't come up is the rape in Friday, and Friday's later .. well, forgiveness isn't quite the word for it.

That one stopped me in my tracks, and no matter how I tried to say, all right, Heinlein is saying that this character Friday is uniqe, in that she can excuse this and see beyond it, no matter how unlikely that seems in the real world. Work of fiction., fictional character, blah de blah ...

Heinlein wasn't one to endorse turning the other cheek, so he was obviously trying to impart something about Friday in this but it always has come across as a terrible, wrong-headed misstep. If for no other reason that it dumps a pan of cold water on the reader and stops them cold

I don't really think you want to do that to the reader

I'd be interested in what John and Charles think of it, if only from a writing standpoint - and any other thoughts as well

I think Jo addressed it ina previous column
David Dyer-Bennet
6. dd-b
Friday was raised to think of herself as not human, AND raised and trained as an agent. There was specific reference to courses on resisting rape as an interrogation technique, and turning it on the interrogators if possible.

AND this is probably the source of some of the degree to which Friday is messed up about sex and intimacy, which is what a lot of the book is about (and her recovery from it).

I think very few readers had your "pan of cold water" reaction.
Captain Button
7. Gerald Fnord
A trivial snipe, but a real caveat: writers of the 'Twenties used the term 'companionate marriage' originally as a love-match between subsequently equal partners---as opposed to the mainstream of the time, which still had strong ideas of 'there needs to be someone in charge' and guess which sex they all should be?

It was, though, also used for 'open' marriage, as the lines of dialogue from "Animal Crackers" just after the phrase "second interlude" here:
http://www.filmsite.org/anim.html
indicate.

I'm afraid that as a child I liked "Sixth Column" a great deal, for religion-as-con, for alternate spectra, for foamed stone, and for bothering to put in Frank Mitsui and diss Geo. Washington in his introduction.

I never liked "Farnham's Freehold" much...awhile back, I was thinking that it needed a revelation that the rulers aquired the taste for whiteman flesh from the indigenes...and amending the end of the novel to 'they went on...until the raiding parties from the warlord a few miles down got them.' Maybe if I found Hugh Farnham at all likeable, though I don't have Kim Newman's massive hate-on for him....
David Dyer-Bennet
8. dd-b
Sixth Column isn't one of my favorites, but I don't find it morally reprehensible.

The conquering Pan Asians are fairly "evil", but it's pretty clearly not racial, it's cultural. All humans have the potential to fall into an evil culture, we adapt rather easily.

The race-specific ray is unlikely, because the genetic differences are so trivial; it's unlikely you could tune for something so small. Especially since it's "Pan Asians", i.e. a mixture of people from over there, so they probably have a lot of genetic diversity. On the other hand, when this book was written we didn't know anything about the degrees of genetic difference between races; I think it's fair to say it's turned out to be much smaller than even modern scientists expected.

I, too, was rather fond of the "religion as scam" plot thread.

An interesting book to compare this to might be Not This August, Cyril Kornbluth's 1955 novel of a conquered United States being rescued by a small band of competent people. I haven't read either one in ages.
Captain Button
9. Bill Patterson
#5 - JohnnyYen. The rape scene is a literary evocation of _Candide_, where Cunegonde is raped and bayonetted but shows up later in the book and (in the Bernstein/Hellman _Candide_ "lets talk of other things.")

The mimetic motivation of the character and the scene are made secondary by that evocation, because it tells us we should look for some of the story logic of _Candide_) showing up.

For example, how about the casting out from her New Zealand "family": is that an ironic evocation of Candide's leaving El Dorado? Aside from telling us Friday is still looking for her lost love, what doe turning the _Candide_ lens on that particular incident potentially suggest about the scene?

And does it throw additional light on the end with soccer-mom Friday? Is she "cultivating her garden"?

There's always more than meets the eye when Heinlein goes out of his way to find and step on the toes God made for stepping on.
Captain Button
10. michel de strossfan
Charlie, your opening sentence is perfect.
Captain Button
11. TaraLi Jie
With respect to the genetics in Sixth Column - we must remember that biology at the time was rather iffy. In fact, in one of the Heinlein novels, it was specified that humans had 48 chromosomes - I can't remember if it's Sixth Column or Beyond This Horizon, though the latter seems more likely. However, we know now that humans have 46 normally, not 48. Unfortunately, if Heinlein had in fact checked a biology textbook of the time, he would in fact have found listed that humans had 48 chromosomes - I have done so in a biology text of the period, and found exactly that mistake. I have been curious about how that mistake came about, and how it came to be corrected, but haven't found anything particularly relevant via Google, and I don't have good access to the academic journals.
Captain Button
12. kit
Is my memory fooling me, or does Sixth Column have the same plot as Not This August by CMKornbluth, written not that long previously.

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