Wed
Jul 6 2011 11:00am

Heinlein’s Worst Novel

In the 1988 Hugos thread, a discussion broke out about which is Heinlein’s worst novel. Gardner Dozois thinks it’s a toss up between The Number of the Beast (1980) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Nancy Lebovitz thinks it’s clearly The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985).

As you probably know if you’ve been reading my posts here for a while, I’m very fond of Heinlein. He’s a solid favourite of mine. I can even find good things to say about his bad books. When he was good he was very very good, and even when he was bad he was consistently compelling. He did write a number of books I don’t much like — and my advice for where to start with Heinlein is “anything less than an inch thick.”

But I have a firm opinion on which was his worst book, and for me it’s unquestionably To Sail Beyond the Sunset. I haven’t re-read it recently and I’m not going to re-read it, even though I do re-read all of the others from time to time. So I’m going to do something I very seldom do and talk about a book from my memories of it without revisiting it, because I just don’t want to read it again. It’s the only Heinlein book I really don’t like.

All of Heinlein’s late novels are too long and insufficiently plotted. As I understand from Grumbles From the Grave, his postumously published selected letter collection, and what he says about writing in Expanded Universe, he plotted organically — he started off with characters and a situation and let the situation evolve and the characters do things until he had a book. This is a perfectly valid way of writing — by which I mean I do this myself. It does require being able to hold the whole story in your mind and look at it from on top, or else things start to spiral in a bad way, so that every character action leads to every other character action but the shape of the story gets out of control. It’s like planting a hedge and whacking it until you have topiary. You’ve got to hold on tight to the shape of the story to make this work, or you just have an undisciplined hedge. It’s quite clear to me that this is what happened with Friday, and indeed with all his books from I Will Fear No Evil on. I have heard that Heinlein may have suffered a stroke or some other kind of organic brain damage that prevented him from seeing the shape from on top.

But this problem is a problem with all of late Heinlein, from 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil onwards. It’s perfectly possible to dislike all of late Heinlein. For me, there are compensating virtues — I might prefer properly pruned topiary, but I’ll take a hedge that’s bursting out all over if that’s all that’s going. For one thing there’s the wonderful Heinlein voice. For another, the plot might writhe out of control but it has some lovely moments along the way. They are all flawed to a greater or lesser degree, but I can find something to enjoy, to keep bringing me back, in all of these books except To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

I Will Fear No Evil is doing brave if weird things with the concept of gender and identity. Time Enough For Love (1973) has the embedded short stories which I love. The Number of the Beast (1980) is at attempt at doing alternating points-of-view, which I don’t think he had ever done before, and while the plot is all over the place it has its moments. I genuinely love Friday. Job also has its memorable moments. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is weaker, and the rescuing Mike plot is infuriating, and it would strike me as the worst if not for To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

I bought To Sail Beyond the Sunset in hardback as soon as it came out — new Heinlein! — and I sold it again because it left such a bad taste in my mouth. Then I thought I must have been unfair to it — I’m always ready to blame myself for not enjoying a book. I bought it again in paperback and read it again, and no, it really did have the problems I thought it did.

There are two huge things that make me dislike it. Firstly, To Sail Beyond the Sunset spoils the short story “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” which is one of my favourite of Heinlein’s short stories. If you want me to hate something, give me a sequel to something I love that invalidates the original work. I do not believe that George from “The Man Who Sold the Moon” was involved with Maureen, the central character from To Sail Beyond the Sunset. If he had been, the story would have been different. No. No, no, no. This is a retcon that absolutely repels me. (See “rescuing Mike” problem with The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.)

To Sail Beyond the Sunset is about Lazarus Long’s mother Maureen, who appears first in Time Enough For Love. So it’s a female voice, something with which Heinlein had variable success — Podkayne doesn’t work well for me, but Friday really does. So the book starts in the nineteenth century — and this is my other huge problem with it. It starts in the nineteenth century and the very early twentieth century, and it’s jogging happily along at buggy-whip speeds, and then suddenly it jumps to the twenty-first century and space rocket speeds. In other words, it entirely elides the present, going immediately from the past to the future. Of course Heinlein has done this before, but here he’s telling the story of one person’s life, and she must have lived through the present to get to the future. Leaping over the decades of the twentieth century cracks the spine of the book — in 1987 it should have been possible to have a little bit of how Maureen reacted to the sixties or indeed anything between WWI and space travel — but instead it leaps over it in a way that gave me whiplash. And this is, incidentally, why the title "In Dialogue With His Century” seemed so inappropriate for a Heinlein biography — by the end of his life Heinlein and the Twentieth Century didn’t seem to be on speaking terms.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

76 comments
Pamela Adams
1. Pam Adams
Plus the whole relationship with those last couple of kids was really annoying. I did like the cat, however, that traveled with her.
Improbable Joe
2. Improbable Joe
What about all the weird sexual perversion?!?! Not that it was surprising that stuff got kinky, more that it didn't really make any damned sense to me from a story or character standpoint. It just seemed like Heinlein wanted to tackle some more incest/free-love stuff and instead of creating a setting, characters, and plot in which to explore the issues, he just said "screw it" and hung those ideas on 'Little House on the Prairie.'
Elio García
3. Egarcia
To Sail Beyond the Sunset would certainly be my pick, whereas -- perhaps strangely -- The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is one of my favorite Heinlein novels. I vastly prefer the screwball comedy aspects of it to the later half when it's tied into the Lazarus Long and rescuing Mike storyline, but I always found it breezy and colorful. There were lectures buried in it here and there, but most Heinlein novels did.

I've always respected Gharlane of Eddore's (RIP) reading of The Number of the Beast as a deliberate, nod-and-wink both to all the literature that Heinlein loved and the foibles and follies of writers (including himself), with a lot of buried lessons of what writers shouldn't do. The bit that always convinced me that there was something to his argument is that the stiff-legged, alien "Black Hats" who show up at random intervals to jerk the story along in a new direction all have names which are anagrams of Heinlein's various pen-names.
Improbable Joe
4. 12stargazers
From Jo: ...and my advice for where to start with Heinlein is “anything less than an inch thick.”

Huh. My first and only attempt at Heinlein was "Stranger in a Strange Land." I bounced off it pretty hard thinking "why in the world do people love this man's work?"


I'll have to find a juvenile of his and try again.
Alain Bouchard
5. AlainB
Totally agree with To Sail Beyond Sunset being the worst of the Heinlein novels, I've never re-read it either.
The whole thing seemed badly held together and it almost feels that Heinlein knew that it would be his last novel and decided to put everything but the kitchen-sink in it. All we're missing in sexual diversity is some bestiality!
I'm a big fan of The Number of the Beast however having reread it numerous times trying to figure out who the characters were. Kind of like reading Silverlock by John myers Myers.
Improbable Joe
6. Tamara K
Thats a charitable view of the book, I think. I never got past the wierd gender stuff.
Herb Schaltegger
7. LameLefty
I totally agree this is Heinlein's worst. I read it once and have no interest in reading it again. I didn't much care for the Cat Who Walks Through Walls but this . . . just, ugh. That said, I adored Friday (for Friday herself, who rocked), and The Number of the Beast for exactly the same reasons mentioned by a prior commenter - it's great self-referentially silly fun at the expense of both the author (Neil O'Heret Brain, anyone?) and every bit of fantastic fiction he loved in his life. Oddly (or perhaps not), I also really enjoyed Job. It works for me both as a retelling of the Book of Job and as a biting satire of religion in general.
rick gregory
8. rickg
Hmmm two comments.. First, Jo, did you hit Post too soon? Because very little of the post actually seems about the book. Just felt like it left off midway in.

Second, I'm always amused at the people freaking about the sexual issues in late Heinlein. Here we are, SF people... we're willing to embrace the oddest, most out there speculations on the future... post-humanism? Genetic tinkering? Aliens in various weird configurations? All no problem. Sex out of the ordinary at all? ZOMG that's WEIRD!! Perverted! SQUICK! It's both amusing and a bit sad that readers in our genre tend to be so close to RAH's Mrs Grundy.
David Levinson
9. DemetriosX
I actually quite like the early parts of TSBtS. All the stuff in Maureen's childhood and early adulthood (up to either her marriage or her version of the end of Time Enough for Love, I waffle here) are actually pretty interesting.

Jo's big complaint about skipping the present has more to do with the structure of Heinlein's future history. The timeline breaks with our own in the early 20th century (FDR is not confined to a wheelchair), but runs much the same until 1939. After the war, technology advances much more rapidly (possibly due to interference by Lazarus Long in 1917) and then the Howards head for the stars and miss most of the Crazy Years.

As for the worst novel, I'm not sure. For a long time, I'd ahve said Job, but I've come to like that more and more. Probably Number, but as @3 notes, you can observe it through a meta-lens that makes it much more interesting. I Will Fear No Evil is a close second.
Improbable Joe
10. Teka Lynn
I think the first part of the novel would make quite a nice stand-alone work. After that, it slides downhill. The part with the daughter/stepdaughter? Dorothea? is especially painful. Heinlein may have hypothesized that Maureen's handling of her issues was correct...but no. Just no. Get the poor girl to a competent therapist, stat.
jon meltzer
11. jmeltzer
I liked Job when it originally came out, but you really need to have read Jurgen first for it to make sense, and Cabell seems to have slipped back into obscurity now.
Clark Myers
12. ClarkEMyers
Agreed throughout save that I'd say both For Us the Living and Variable Star are inferior to any of the works named on the Hugos of '88 thread.

If we fiddle with defining terms I'd say the other works mentioned aim higher and miss lower for a larger fall between intent and result - if the distance of that fall be the criterion then indeed To Sail Beyond the Sunset is a greater failure.

I'd also agree that in dialog with his century is over-reaching though here we are in the 21st still talking about Mr. Heinlein and his writing to include his ideas. As so often the case I'd say the dialog is more with predecessors than with contemporaries - Forever War may be in some form of dialog (monolog?) with Starship Troopers but not vice versa.

To Sail Beyond the Sunset was published on the 80th birthday of its author - it's typical for the elderly to put more emphasis on their own youth than on the more recent past.

Maureen meets Tailgunner Joe, Senator Proxmire and has a click moment working as a Bunny with Gloria Steinem might be an interesting take on the cold war era but equally not something I'd expect Mr. Heinlein to do well so I'm content to miss it.
Alayne McGregor
13. alaynem
I think I only read To Sail Beyond the Sunset once (when it came out), so my memories of it are vague (shaving and sex being the most prominent). I just thought it was mediocre.

Farnham's Freehold, on the other hand, really annoyed me in many, many ways.
Improbable Joe
14. peachy
My experience with Heinlein is that he's really good up to a certain length - the short novels tend to wrap up neatly, but the longer ones eventually lose their way. (One reason Door into Summer is my personal favourite.)
Jo Walton
15. bluejo
Clark: I don't actually count either For Us the Living or certainly Variable Star as Heinlein novels -- the first was an early work he decided not to publish, and the second is a sketch written by somebody else. I'd be very interested in reading the original notes for Variable Star, however.
Natalie Luhrs
16. eilatan
This was actually the very first Heinlein I ever read. My dad bought it in paperback and gave it to me when he was finished reading it. I was 15 or so, and it was the first SF novel I ever really loved. I went on to read nearly everything else Heinlein had written--and since the first book I read was late Heinlein, to this day I have an unaccountable fondness for late Heinlein. I don't know, if I hadn't read this book with a female protagonist, if I'd have continued to read science fiction (and fantasy) or not. My general perception of the genre(s), up to that point, was that they were "boy books" and that they weren't meant for me. This book helped persuade me otherwise.
Bob Bruhin
17. bruhinb
@Improbable Joe: If you think that anything that happens in Heinlein counts as "sexual perversion" -- or even as mildly "kinky" -- you've led a sadly sheltered life. Read some Samual Delaney (Dhalgren, for example) and then return to the conversation.

That being said, why is it that Delaney or St. Philip the Dick can wander aimlessly all about the space of discourse, stepping in shit and fucking everything that moves for 1500 pages, and come away smelling of art and brilliance, while relatively innocuous, "somewhat less provincial than Bradbury," works by Heinlein seem to attract such vicious criticism?
Improbable Joe
18. Gardner Dozois
I don't recall anywhere in Phil Dick, even his drug-addled novels, where he says that fathers sexually initiating their daughters is a Good Thing.
Fred Kiesche
19. FredKiesche
I'll just point out that three years (more or less) after the NYT declared RAH no longer relevant, we're still discussing him! RAH, RAH, RAH!

I seem to recall it being said that during the writing of "I Will Fear No Evil", RAH's illness prevented him from working on the books as much as previous, so Virginia took a hand. Perhaps we'll learn more about that when the second volume of the biography comes out.

"To Sail" and the others past "Moon is a Harsh Mistress"/"Stranger in a Strange Land" are among the weakest, but I still like Heinlein on an off day more than many other writers at their peak.
Improbable Joe
20. Improbable Joe
@ bruhinb

You didn't exactly get my point... which is why you probably are confused about the second part of your comment. An author can create any sort of sexual environment for their characters and it can seem "natural" or "perverse" depending on the situation. My complaint was that I don't feel like Heinlein was successful in creating a situation and characters for whom the sex stuff made much sense, especially in this particular book. He's been less clumsy with it in other books, which is why I'm singling out this one and why this is probably many people's least favorite Heinlein.

It made some sort of sense for Lazarus Long to want to put it to his mom in TEFL. The incest stuff in TSBtS always seemed like it it was there for the sole purpose of trumping the last most extreme stuff, taboo-breaking for shock value or at least for its own sake, and without the grounding needed to make it work for me. If you want to push a social boundary in fiction, you need to build a world and characters for which the taboo behavior makes sense. That just didn't happen here, at least from my point of view. Heinlein just seemed to sort of explain it away by making Maureen really, really horny. That's not enough.
Bob Bruhin
21. bruhinb
@Gardner Dozois: Heinlein says that? In those words??

I wouldn't have been at all surprised if you attributed that to John Varley, but I don't remember that in Heinlein. I know you know your source material, but I'd still really appreciate a cite, just for my own satisfaction.

While that may -- or may not, depending on concensuality and the age of the daughters -- count as "sexual perversion," I do seem to have a slightly more hardcore definition of "kink" than some others here...
Bob Bruhin
22. bruhinb
@Improbable Joe: I'm not so much missing your point, as ignoring it while I quarrel with your exact use of the terms "sexual perversion" and "kink." I totally agree that the sexual motivations of the chararacters in the later novels is fuzzy and poorly drawn, in general, with TSBtS possibly offering the most incomprehensible motivations of all.

It's all still "merely nonmonagamy" though, shot through with hints of concensual incest fantasies. I'm just having trouble taking those behaviors very seriously as at all challenging in anything other than the most totally repressives societies.

And yes, the second part of my original post was no longer directed at your comments at all... it was more a slightly tangential rant somewhat inspired by the subject matter in your post...
Nancy Lebovitz
23. NancyLebovitz
It's been a while since I've read To Sail (am I the only one who doesn't like unpronounable acronyms for titles?), but the historical bits seemed like good enough realistic fiction while Tertius was annoyingly vague.

I believe that Maureen took some damage because her father told her she didn't have an innate moral sense so she needed to live by rules, and he didn't include any rules for re-examining the rules.

On the other hand, I'm impressed with her intelligence and pragmatism and ability to turn her hand to what's necessary.

It might be possible to pull out another essay about how Heinlein's female characters are more likely to have naturalistic lives than the males. What happened to Podkayne-- having big dreams and doing nothing to pursue them and ending up doing something less impressive-- isn't too different from a lot of people's lives. Kip and John Thomas and Thorby have plot magic putting them into position to make major differences.

I'm not saying it's always like that-- Juan Rico becomes a lieutenant, and that's a good enough achievement. He doesn't end up running Terra, or even the Mobile Infantry.

In re how Maureen handled the brother and sister-- I read it as some errors of judgement, partly because she'd just been divorced, and partly because she didn't think about how much authority she actually didn't have over two near-adults who (iirc) had just met her.

In both this book and Cat, there are sub-plots about main characters being saddled with young people who just don't get it. Not one of the best things in Heinlein.

Unlike most readers who are revolted by Lazarus Long (Woodrow Wilson Smith?) marrying his mother, I'm annoyed that Heinlein wimped out. He should have tried to show the relationship. It would have been messy, and Heinlein might not have been the person to write it, but it would have been interesting if he'd taken an honest crack at it.

LL had lived for centuries beyond his mother's life. She'd lived for about 50 years that he didn't know about. I think the usual worries about power imbalance would flip around-- LL is much older and knows the local technology and culture.

In re why Heinlein got more flack about what he said and portrayed about sex than Delany, Farmer, or Dick: I think Heinlein's air of "I'm telling you the absolute truth about the world" made the effect more shocking.
JOhn Johnson
24. smileyman
I would not call To Sail Heinlein's worst book at all. For me it's probably a three way tie between Time Enough for Love, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and Number of the Beast. The sad thing is there are parts of each book that I really like.

I'm not sure where the hullaboo is over the sexual nature of the books. They seem to me to be a natural extension of some of the attitudes and concepts that Heinlein wrote about in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, however by the time he reached this stage in his writing I think his authorial voice tended towards lecturing rather than showing. (In that regard he actually reminds me a great deal of Louis L'Amour.)

I wonder how much editing his editor actually did with these later books, because most of his earlier fiction was very tightly plotted and developed. The later stuff tends to wander around awhile before reaching the end goal.
John Adams
25. JohnArkansawyer
In the 1988 Hugos thread, a discussion broke out about which is Heinlein’s worst novel. Gardner Dozois thinks it’s a toss up between The Number of the Beast (1980) and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Nancy Lebovitz thinks it’s clearly The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985).


For me, it's between The Cat Who Walked Through Walls and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (which, uniquely among Heinlein's books, I believe I have never re-read).

I have heard that Heinlein may have suffered a stroke or some other kind of organic brain damage that prevented him from seeing the shape from on top.



This is said (and I believe it to be true) most specifically about I Will Fear No Evil. That's a terrible pity, as it had the potential to be Heinlein's finest novel. The man's literary aspirations reached the highest at exactly the moment his body failed him.

The Number of the Beast (1980) is at attempt at doing alternating points-of-view, which I don’t think he had ever done before


Unless you count I Will Fear No Evil.

by the end of his life Heinlein and the Twentieth Century didn’t seem to be on speaking terms.

Ha! Ouch. Bingo. yes I said yes I will Yes


But enough of which Heinlein novel is his worst. Here's the question that I mull over: Which Heinlein novel is his most pernicious? I'm torn between Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but Time Enough for Love is certainly in the running.
John Adams
26. JohnArkansawyer
rickg @ 8:

I'm always amused at the people freaking about the sexual issues in late Heinlein. Here we are, SF people... we're willing to embrace the oddest, most out there speculations on the future... post-humanism? Genetic tinkering? Aliens in various weird configurations? All no problem. Sex out of the ordinary at all? ZOMG that's WEIRD!! Perverted! SQUICK! It's both amusing and a bit sad that readers in our genre tend to be so close to RAH's Mrs Grundy.

I'm ninety-six percent with you on this. The one place where it disturbs me is in Heinlein's "all incest is equal". There's an insuperable (in my opinion) power differential in parent-child incest which makes it qualitatively different (again, in my opinion) from all other sorts. This is of a piece, I think, with Heinlein's naive libertarianism, which accepts only physical force as illegitimate coercion.
Clark Myers
27. ClarkEMyers
Might as well be specific about the peritonitis first and the ischemic incident later to say nothing of the carotid reaming. If I wanted to speculate I'd wonder if Mr. Heinlein suffered a tad from the altitude in Colorado Springs himself.

Some of the folks here may know far more than I do; if so please speak up as appropriate but be specific if not footnoted.

Agreed on a stylistic parallel between Mr. Heinlein and Louis L'Amour in later years as organic plotting led to a sprawling style more like a drunkard's walk than say the tightly organized plots of David Drake. L'Amour in particular would, in the manner of a story teller in the marketplace, write his characters into a cliffhanger then write them out of it somewhat unfairly. Similarly given the suggestion to write and
You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order it must follow as the night the day that things will start to spiral and eventually auger in. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is I suppose the most conventional in form of Mr. Heinlein's books and praised among his works I think as much for being conventional as for being good. I'd point to Glory Road written quickly as a fuzzy dividing line between keeping all the balls in the air and dropping one ball in favor an ooh shiny attractor.
Eli Bishop
28. EliBishop
@bruhinb and NancyLebovitz: This isn't really on-topic, but... I'm having trouble understanding why, when talking about sexual content in science fiction, anyone would mention Philip K. Dick in the same sentence as Samuel Delany or Philip Jose Farmer. I can't think of a single thing in any of PKD's work that would be considered outside of the sexual mainstream even by 1960s standards. Are you sure you're not thinking of Disch?
Improbable Joe
29. nlowery71
I can't argue with the problems and plot messiness of the later books, many of which left me cold. (Though I've always liked The Number of the Beast.) But the only one I found profoundly unpleasant from first reading on (and easily my least reread) is Farnham's Freehold. Hugh's libertarian craziness, Hugh and Barbara's creepy relationship, African-Americans take over and become cannibals. Just ugh. On every level, ugh.
Nancy Lebovitz
30. NancyLebovitz
Excuse me for the PKDick reference-- I was just picking up on the earlier comment, but I don't remember there being much (anything?) about sex in his fiction.
John Adams
31. JohnArkansawyer
EliBishop @ 28: I had the same thought about Dick. (Which both is and is not a sentence you might expect to find in late Heinlein novels.)
Arthur Harrow
32. Dr_Thanatos
Time to chime in.

I really didn't like anything later than Stranger. The plotting became muddled, the characters blended into each other, and it was like he was trying to cram every thought into each book. Perhaps a natural tendency when feeling the Long Sleep approaching.

My take on the sexual debate is that starting at about Stranger, his personal representative tended to not be the young man looking for love and meaning, but the older man obsessed with proving to the younger generation that they did not invent sex. Jubal Harshaw started getting very in-your-face about what he had been doing long before you young pups were born, and it only got more heavy-handed from there.

From the medical perspective, it's not uncommon with aging and stroke to have a loosening of normal social inhibitions; and I can see the characters' attitude about sex and relationships in the later books as an extreme exaggeration of that of the younger protagonists. However, we must assume that his editors did not have medical issues; part of their job should have been to review manuscripts and send them back for revisions to tighten the writing and make the books more readable/salable.

I would wonder if the editing became minimized in the later years because Heinlein could write "There once was a man from Nantucket, who called his mom's booty to etc etc etc" and millions of fans would buy it, regardless of the quality .

I find his later attempts to tie his different books together both a failure and somewhat sad especially when you compare how an ailing Asimov, struggling with HIV and renal failure, was able to accomplish a fusion of Robot novels and Foundation much more successfully.

I started reading Heinlein in the early 60's---Harsh Mistress remains one of my three favorite SF books Foundation and Against the Fall of Night]---it is sad to see your idol decline...
j p
34. sps49
I started in the late 70s with him; I feel gypped that the god ones were all before my time.

I get this book and I Will Fear No Evil mixed up in memory, probably because they were both read-onces.

Friday and The Number of the Beast both started out as rollicking adventures, and both dropped those plot threads for no reason I can understand (and I don't have any background information to see Beast otherwise). And they weren't all that complicated, either; the plots weren't painting themselves into an impossible corner like Evangelion or Lost.
Scott Moore
35. Delta-Slider
@Egarcia
Good call on "Beast"
I enjoyed it well enough but the best part was it gave me books and authors to read that I knew Heinlein liked. Sometimes that can lead you where you would not have gone otherwise.
john mullen
36. johntheirishmongol
While this may be his worst book, it's still better than 90% of the garbage I have seen out there. I think it is because, even in his dotage, RAH wrote about people. Sure, there is some weird sexual stuff going on, although since the internet it seems somewhat tame, but primarily his stories were about his characters. To be sure, this may have been to the detriment of his plotting.

Where I think he went wrong with this book was that he wanted to resurrect all of his favorite characters. It really wasn't necessary, because his characters live forever.

Of his later books, I really do enjoy The Number of the Beast. While there were some weak chapters, *cough Hilda cough*, there was enough fun in it that I dig it out every few years and reread it. BTW, Silverlock is also on that list.
Nancy Lebovitz
37. NancyLebovitz
34. sps49

As I recall, even The Cat started out with a few good pages, though it was interesting to see echoes of previous Heinlein in almost every paragraph.
Improbable Joe
38. dichroic
It is always nice to see someone writing about Heinlein without being either uncritically adoring or sniffily dismissive.

I must feel that TSBtS is one of the worst books, since I haven't reread it (and I reread almost everything). For one thing, the incest did bother me - not between Lazaus and Maureen, where they met as adults, but the father-14 y.o. daughter stuff. That does actually hit me as morally wrong, and I think John Akansawker above nails why.

But in addition to that and The Cat Who Walks Through Wall, I'd have to include Farnham's Freehold on the worst list - not absolute worst since it does make some good points about the arbitrary nature of racism and how people's attitudes change depending on situation, but still well down the list. I keep wanting to put Fifth Column on that list as well, but honestly I can't really remember it. I'm not sure if I read it and am blocking it out, or never did and was put off by so many other people's negative opinions.
Improbable Joe
39. CarlosSkullsplitter
The retcons and the World-as-Myth crap make To Sail Beyond the Sunset bad, less so the sexual politics, though those also fail to entertain. Heinlein enjoyed writing broken yet self-assured narrators. Sometimes they work artistically. Lorenzo Smythe in Double Star is probably his most fully realized example. I think the narrator in Job works exactly as Heinlein intended (whether his intent made artistic sense is another story). Maureen Johnson only works in part -- unsurprisingly, mainly in her early reminiscences.

The most glaring retcon to me is how Heinlein finesses away Japan in his Future History. Heinlein's admiration for Japanese people is well-documented. From the beginning of his career, when he was trying to subvert Campbell's explicitly racist scenario of Sixth Column, he introduced sympathetic Japanese characters into his fiction. And this was tremendously unusual for an adopted Californian from the lower Midwest who had served as an officer in the US Navy, to a degree I don't think people in 2011 can quite get.

But his Future History has a real lack of Japanese characters, or indeed, of any Japanese presence in the future. Therefore, in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, he retcons a wave of systemic ethnic massacre in the United States and a brutal, Soviet-style occupation of Japan by the Americans to wipe them from the board. Oookay.

Heinlein had some odd lapses in recovering his Future History before -- there is a section in Time Enough For Love that has a planet with a city named New Canaveral whose week includes a day called Neilsday, and wtf is that about? -- but in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, he clearly went through his previous work and sought to salvage it for his new paradigm. And the result is a mess.

Finally, it's always dangerous to mistake a narrator's opinion for authorial opinion in Heinlein -- he loved playing games with that -- but there are passages which read like a cranky old man badly ventriloquizing through a redheaded sex doll. "In my day, we didn't have those electric gewgaws to amuse children. We made shadow figures on the cave wall and liked it! Take me now!" This breaks the willing suspension of disbelief, and thus it has to be classified as poorly realized.

That being said, I don't think To Sail Beyond the Sunset is his worst book. That honor really has to go to Farnham's Freehold, which would be badly broken even if the future cannibal African civilization was searched-and-replaced with future cannibal Quebecois.

(I would personally date the onset of the flaws of late Heinlein to Stranger in a Strange Land, where Heinlein had the character of Jubal Harshaw always be "right", even when speaking of events outside the frame of the novel. I wonder if Philip K. Dick picked up on that to use in The Man in the High Castle -- with a Heinlein figure as the character.)

A friend of mine was skimming along To Sail Beyond the Sunset, enjoying Heinlein's slightly cracked early twentieth century, and then came across one of the father-daughter incest scenes. There are YouTube clips of people who have seen the infamous "two girls, one cup" video for the first time. Her response was much like that. Excellent if Heinlein meant to do that -- I certainly understand the impulse -- but I am not sure he did.
John Adams
40. JohnArkansawyer
ClarkEMyers @ 12:

Agreed throughout save that I'd say both For Us the Living and Variable Star are inferior to any of the works named on the Hugos of '88 thread.


I don't know, Clark. I really enjoyed Variable Star. Heinlein only destroyed the world one other time (I don't count Job), and that time, there were no surviving humans. Seeing, even through a filter, how that played out, was worthwhile. And Robinson writes death better? differently, for sure, than Heinlein. (I'm still saving For Us the Living.)

eilatan @ 16:

I don't know, if I hadn't read this book with a female protagonist, if I'd have continued to read science fiction (and fantasy) or not. My general perception of the genre(s), up to that point, was that they were "boy books" and that they weren't meant for me. This book helped persuade me otherwise.


I know someone whose favorite Heinlein character is Maureen, and she's very fond of this book. I get that.
bruhinb @ 17:

That being said, why is it that Delaney or St. Philip the Dick can wander aimlessly all about the space of discourse, stepping in shit and fucking everything that moves for 1500 pages, and come away smelling of art and brilliance, while relatively innocuous, "somewhat less provincial than Bradbury," works by Heinlein seem to attract such vicious criticism?


There's not a lot of fucking in Dick's books, and I wouldn't call this criticism vicious. I'm with Fritz Leiber, who said that Heinlein at his worst is better than most writers at his best. (Granted, he said that between I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough for Love, which I think is the dividing line between the third and fourth periods of Heinlein's work.) However, your point about Delany is a good one, and four possible answers come to mind:
1) Delany wrote sex, and wrote about sex, better than Heinlein did.
2) Delany's characters do a lot more fucking and a lot less talking about fucking.
3) Delany doesn't try to justify the fucking. He just shows it.
4) Heinlein decided to have a full-fledged go at the incest taboo, which (as he knew perfectly well) is deeply rooted and strongly held.
That said, was it Analog or F&SF where a winning entry in a contest for SF-related jokes was:

Q: What do the speed of light, absolute zero, and page 60 of Dhalgren have in common?
A: No one will ever get past them.


That's vicious. Funny as hell, but vicious.
And with reference to criticism of this particular book, consider this overly harsh assessment:
johntheirishmongol @ 36:

While this may be his worst book, it's still better than 90% of the garbage I have seen out there.


By Sturgeon's Law, that puts it right on the edge of being crap. I don't think it's crap, myself, but one of the books has to be the least good.
NancyLebovitz @ 23:

Unlike most readers who are revolted by Lazarus Long (Woodrow Wilson Smith?) marrying his mother, I'm annoyed that Heinlein wimped out. He should have tried to show the relationship. It would have been messy, and Heinlein might not have been the person to write it, but it would have been interesting if he'd taken an honest crack at it.
LL had lived for centuries beyond his mother's life. She'd lived for about 50 years that he didn't know about. I think the usual worries about power imbalance would flip around-- LL is much older and knows the local technology and culture.


That's really thoughtful and interesting. I wish we'd seen that (and that I'd said that).
I still think there's an insuperable power differential between parent and child that gives that taboo force beyond genetics (which objection Heinlein easily dismisses) , but it would have been great to see that addressed head on.
And yeah, Heinlein probably wasn't the person to do it, but I wish he'd tried.
smileyman @ 24:

I wonder how much editing his editor actually did with these later books


I'm pretty sure the answer is, "Hardly any at all."
Bob Bruhin
41. bruhinb
@NancyLebovitz: Hey Nancy! Apologies for setting you up with the spurous Dick reference. When I originally wrote my comment, I was trying to talk about criticism over sexuality and criticism over wandering, lost narrative. Eventually I edited out all of the references to the wandering narrative and just left the sexual criticism in the post... or so I thought. I unfortunately left my Dick behind for no useful reason!

@EliBishop: Is it possible that I know your parents from when they lived in Philadelphia?
Bill Altreuter
42. outsidecounsel
Coincidently I just read this for the first time two days ago. There's been a copy in my house for years, but my experience with later Heinlein has been such that I never bothered to pick it up. It is, I think, an interesting failure, and I think if he'd worked with a competent editor it could have been a much better book. Unfortunately what it turned out to be is an incomplete collage of three or four different ideas for books, none of which ultimately gel.
First we have the alternate history that Maureen wakes up in. Waking up naked in bed next to a dead man is a promising beginning, but this storyline shambles around for a little bit, veers close to cliché, than disappears for essentially the next two thirds of the book. We move next into reminiscence about life in turn of the 19th Century southeastern Missouri. Except for all the blahblahblah about sexual morality, which is far too reminiscent of the second half of Stranger in a Strange Land, this stuff is pretty grand-- and very different from anything else I can think of that Heinlein ever wrote. It is mostly realistic, beautifully descriptive, and, I think, lovingly rendered. The Maureen in this section is one of the most engaging woman characters on Heinlein's shelf (and I say that as someone who likes Poddy Fries). At some point Heinlein seems to lose interest in this story and decides to tie it into the Howard Family stuff, and then he decides to have everyone have sex with everyone else. Oddly, for a guy who had a lot of sex, and a lot of opinions about sex, he doesn't really write very well about the sex, and instead writes at tedious length about his opinions instead. For all of the sex that’s in this book there is a real dearth of sexy or erotic description (although there is some). It seems to me that the novel pretty much loses it when it is established that Woodrow Wilson Smith is Lazarus Long from the future, who has some investment advice.
One of the ways that you can tell that the story has gone off the rails at this point is that the investment advice changes from solid (if boring) stuff into moonbeam stuff. Maureen and her husband work hard, live within their means, and save. They set aside the dough they get from the Howard Trust for each of their children. This is Reader’s Digest-style advice. Lazarus Long has magical stock tips, and recommends buying a lot of gold. As financial advice this is pretty much on a par with the recommendations the book makes about how to manage one’s sex life.
The Man Who Sold the Moon is a great book about risk-taking and determination, and this section diminishes it. (Indeed, it seems to diminish every earlier work it references.) Now we go back to that interesting timeline we started with, with the naked bacchanalia but Heinlein seems to have lost interest, so he wraps it up quickly, and then a veritable Justice League of Heinlein characters fight Nazis and change the course of WWII so that Maureen can have sex with her father. It’s a shame really. At the peak of his powers Heinlein wrote novels with plots that worked like a Swiss watch, but that was beyond him here. There are some well drawn characters, but there are also so many stick figures that I lost track and couldn’t be bothered to keep track anymore. There are some great turns of phrase—another Heinlein specialty, but not anything like enough to sustain one through the whole damn book.
A good editor might have told him, let’s stick with the story about the horny Missouri housewife and see where that takes you. I think that book might have rivaled Mildred Pierce. Instead we get some of that, and a lot of what looks like Heinlein fanfic, by Heinlein himself.

I agree that Farnham's Freehold is far and away his worst book, and I'd say that nobody but a Heinlein completist really needs to go past the first half of Stranger in a Strange Land to get the best of him. It speaks well of his work that so many people become Heinlein completists.
Improbable Joe
43. James Davis Nicoll
Q: What do the speed of light, absolute zero, and page 60 of Dhalgren have in common?
A: No one will ever get past them.


That's vicious. Funny as hell, but vicious.


See, I would have gone for "stupid", myself. It may not be to most SF fans' tastes but the Bantam edition alone sold over a million copies; someone out there liked Dhalgren.

In fact, I know of at least one traditional SF figure who liked it a lot; Fred Pohl, whose SFnal credentials are impecable, bought it for Bantam:

http://preview.tinyurl.com/43vt3ml
Arthur Harrow
44. Dr_Thanatos
When I saw that line about absolute zero and Dhalgren, I thought I was going to split a gut.

My room-mate gave me a copy to read in college; said it read easily and I could finish it in a week. One semester later...

It became a running gag: what was the definition of a big stinking nasty joke to play on someone? Give them a copy of Dhalgren from the library and tell them it's due back in 2 weeks...

Again, what is sad is that editors saw that they could make a fast buck off the Great Man instead of spending the time and effort to make these books less disappointing...
David Dyer-Bennet
45. dd-b
Dr_Thanatos, I must point out that Stranger In A Strange Land, which you say you disliked everything after, was published 5 years before The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which you say is one of your three favorite SF books.

I understand the confusion, though, because SIASL does seem to have the seeds of nearly all the collapse of late Heinlein clearly present in it. TMIAHM manages to make the unusual family structure work in the book, without being at all titillating about it, and otherwise seems to lack the faults of the later works.
Improbable Joe
46. James Davis Nicoll
I understand the confusion, though, because SIASL does seem to have the seeds of nearly all the collapse of late Heinlein clearly present in it.

So does Moon but Moon has the feature that it sticks pretty much to Manny's point of view so the Old Guy Who is Always Right doesn't get as much stage time as Jubal (1).

Moon also unleashed the innumerate horror that is the Lunar Bombard; Heinlein either didn't do the math or chose to ignore and as a result I will suffer for the rest of my days people who think it's an accurate guide to the puissance of space-based kinetic weapons.



1: Speaking of Old Men Who Are Always Right, I was always impressed by the self-control of the people in Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar who did not beat Chad Mulligan insensible every time he opened his mouth. Impressed and also a little disappointed.
David Dyer-Bennet
47. dd-b
I remember feeling that this wasn't a bad novel to go out on. He might well have known it was his last when he was writing it.

But that feeling is relative to my experience with other late Heinlein novels, none of which were very good. (I, like some others here, find even the worst Heinlein quite readable. I've re-read everything. I held out longest on Rocketship Galileo, actually.)

Heinlein seems to have internalized a lot of Freud, which I think comes out to their detriment in his later works. I think that's part of where the fascination with incest comes from.

Incest is complicated, and there are far too many people being harmed by actual incest in the real world.

Still, technical definitions don't seem to me to relate that closely to the probability of harm. If a child given up for adoption at birth meets their full sibling for the first time 30 years later, and they find they're attracted, that's a very different thing from a father raping his 13-year-old daughter (or her older brother doing s0). (Siblings having children together is genetically somewhat risky, but in the futures Heinlein writes about that can be dealt with technologically.)

When Heinlein writes about Lazarus, when he's 3000 years old, being attracted to his mother, who doesn't know who he is, that feels to me like Heinlein playing out weird Freudian tropes, but much less like real "incest". The mother-son relationship is so far behind Lazarus, and mostly ahead of and unknown to Maureen, that it doesn't play into things much, and there's no serious power imbalance between the people they are at the time of the relationship.

When he writes about Lazarus' clone-daughters wanting to bed their father when they're just about 18, though, he doesn't manage to get wround the clear-and-present power imbalance and the recent history of even greater imbalance, and that does come off as a bit weird. (As presented in the book, the girls are the initiators and push really really hard, and Lazarus resists fairly hard. But still.) I don't buy any theory that it could be that simple in the real world very often.
Arthur Harrow
48. Dr_Thanatos
dd-b@45, 47:

I stand corrected; I can only suspect that Older Heinlein chased Amy Pond and her skirt into a TARDIS in order to prove to her that he had thought of the whole Roman Legionaire and Naughty Policewoman scenario first, came out 20 years earlier, wrote Stranger, and then followed River back to his regular timeline...

Also, speaking of books that reminded me a lot of Tom Swift: Rocket Ship Galileo. I have only one thing to say about this book. One thing that redeems every other flaw in it:

Nazis on the Moon!!!!
Improbable Joe
49. Shakatany
18. Gardner Dozois Wednesday July 06, 2011 03:14pm EDT I don't recall anywhere in Phil Dick, even his drug-addled novels, where he says that fathers sexually initiating their daughters is a Good Thing.

I seem to recall a late Robot novel by Isaac Asimov where the antagonist hated her father because he wouldn't deflower her as was customary on this planet in the future. It's as if Asimov was trying to do something Heinleinish but just couldn't bring himself to explore it too deeply.
Clark Myers
50. ClarkEMyers
Just as there can be no dull numbers - assuming a set of all dull numbers the smallest/largest/median dull number is ipso facto interesting and so it goes - so too given the least interesting of all Heinlein long form works that becomes interesting.

I doubt very much that editors saw that they could make a fast buck off the Great Man instead of spending the time and effort to make these books less disappointing... I am reminded of Jacques Barzun's statement that a good editor is treasure forever - but who once being told that his usage did not accord with the American Heritage dictionary considered the authority by the publisher - told his editor that as he Jacques Barzun was the ultimate authority on usage for the American Heritage dictionary the next edition of the dictionary would accord with the manuscript. Who will bell the cat and who will edit Mr. Heinlein to his own satisfaction?

I stand by my assertion that the rules for writers Mr. Heinlein first suggested about 1947 don't lead to well polished work. It's easier to find tales of Mr. Heinlein pushing back against editing than to find gratitude for useful suggestions. Rumor says Mr. Heinlein himself did a pretty good editing job for The Mote in God's Eye but Mr. Heinlein was more inclined to give good advice than to to take it.

It's consensus that most all of the generally inferior later longer (over long) works have shorter form pieces of high quality embedded - raisins in the blancmange. The market moved on to longer and longer works (WOT anyone?) and Mr. Heinlein met the needs of the market - with inferior work.

Compare and contrast with say David Drake's Lord of the Isles series especially the concluding trilogy which we know was well edited by a quality publisher. It all hangs together, follows well in both story and plot and equally was not created by the organic methods described above.

Perhaps a more competitive market place has led to more and better editing than Mr. Heinlein was given but I doubt it was the editor's choice that Mr. Heinlein do little or no after sale editing.

As I note from time to time I'm quite sure that had Mr. Heinlein written to my order, the books altered a priori as I might have wanted them I wouldn't have liked the results nearly so well. When I was younger, reading Rocket Ship Galileo on first publication and SF in Boy's Life, eventually Double Star I did place great weight on opinions and ideals in Mr. Heinlein's writings.

These days I suppose that given effective immortality social mores would be different and likely enough, indeed surely, would include sexual mores beyond my own experience. Just the same I rank much of the preaching with the suggestion to get a shot off fast - interesting, worth considering and ultimately rejected. On that subject I like John Farnam's suggestion: I counsel my young and energetic students, as a "general rule," to be always "too accurate, rather than too fast.

Poul Anderson has a character in a society of immortals with free love and wife swapping who is driven by a socially aberrant deeply felt, almost hardwired, monogamy with a spoiler conclusion that his wife missed out on immortality.

The speculative aspect remains the more significant aspect of the story telling I think.
John Adams
51. JohnArkansawyer
James Davis Nicoll @ 43:

See, I would have gone for "stupid", myself. It may not be to most SF fans' tastes but the Bantam edition alone sold over a million copies; someone out there liked Dhalgren.
Don't misunderstand me--just because that joke is funny doesn't mean it's good criticism. It's not. Dhalgren is a wonderful book which I love, and which I had read for the first time when I laughed at that joke. But I also understand why some people find it put-downable (in both senses of the word). I also laughed at the review of The Fantasies of Robert Heinlein which said (paraphrasing) "Barely-pubescent twin redheaded mathematial genius girls with a thing for old men", even though I love Heinlein and think that book is the ideal introduction to his writing.
Alayne McGregor
52. alaynem
@38. Of early-mid Heinlein, I think his weakest books were
* Farnham's Freehold
* Sixth Column / The Day After Tomorrow
* Rocket Ship Galileo
* Beyond This Horizon

Only the first I find unreadable now. Sixth Column had issues re racism in John W Campbell's initial premise for the book, but I thought Heinlein did a decent job of trying to subvert that. And I loved the use of religious organizations for political purposes: forecast a good part of the late 20th/early 21st century.

Rocket Ship Galileo is fun in a Boy Scouts in Space way. Me, I would have preferred to drop the Nazis as villains: very dated.

Beyond This Horizon has some wonderful characters, even though the eugenics premise is deeply outdated and incorrect and could be considered offensive. It's certainly an interesting historical artifact.
Improbable Joe
53. Dr. Thanatos
alaynem@52,

Nazis weren't dated when the book was written (1947) or when I read it (1965)---Nazi leaders were still being found in odd corners of the world and their leading a resurgence was a very real fear even into the 1960's; at the time this was a very scary concept, of a secret nazi base in a position to do some damage. It seems dated from this distance, but so do a lot of things we accept in SF/F novels.

I personally love the sound of Nazis on the Moon because it has a 1950's movie title vibe, like Robot vs the Aztec Mummy or Queen of Outer Space
Improbable Joe
54. David A (still)
How can Nazi's as villains be "dated" in a book published in 1947 (and likely written, or at least plotted, even earlier)?
Ursula L
55. Ursula
With all the complaints about the editing of late Heinlein, I'm left wonder who was Heinlein's editor at the time?

This person may well still be alive, and might well have interesting things to say about the experience of editing for Heinlein. And tor.com strikes me as being the sort of place where such a person could have a sympathetic platform and fascinated audience.
Improbable Joe
56. Dr. Thanatos
Ursula,

That's a great idea. I think it would inform our discussion to hear from an editor, even if it wasn't Heinlein's, about the editing process especially in the context of a Beloved Icon...
Improbable Joe
57. gottacook
I am already worried that the second volume of Patterson's biography will be uncritical of late Heinlein. Patterson's introduction to a recent combined Baen edition of The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace from Earth, for example, argues that subsuming the entire corpus of the "future history" stories under "Timeline: Leslie Lecroix" (as it's referred to in both of Heinlein's last two novels) was unquestionably a worthwhile idea. See for yourself at www.webscription.net/chapters/1439133417/1439133417.htm.

Regarding To Sail, I still recall picking it up in a store when it came out and immediately noticing that the last pages consisted of a catalog of which character came from which previous story or stories. Horrifying.
Jo Walton
58. bluejo
Carlos: I should probably have mentioned Farnham's Freehold as a likely candidate for worst, but I tend to forget it exists. There's an awful lot of "What was he thinking?" in that book.
John Adams
59. JohnArkansawyer
gottacook @ 58: I think you're overstating the case a bit. On the other hand, asking Mr. Google about "'order of literature'" does not bring up Eliot on the first page; asking about "'order of literature' eliot" brings up the essay you mention. IANAEliotScholar but that's suggestive.
Andrew Love
60. AndyLove
Rocket Ship Galileo is fun in a Boy Scouts in Space way. Me, I would have preferred to drop the Nazis as villains: very dated.


If they were dated in the late 40's, imagine how dated they were as villains in Sawyer's Frameshift (from the 2000s).


Beyond This Horizon has some wonderful characters, even though the eugenics premise is deeply outdated and incorrect and could be considered offensive. It's certainly an interesting historical artifact.


It certainly is an interesting work. For one thing, the representative of the genetically inferior "control naturals" is a white American from the 1920s, while the superior humans of the future seem to be more diverse. Also the "control naturals" are subsidized by the government, to encourage their continued existence. Not the usual eugenic-system (and the main character repeatedly mocks the idea that genetics is the only measure of a person's value).

Other interesting aspects of the book: the main character considers himself to be a failure, and has no interest in having children (hardly the Heinlein competent man!), and though there are a lot of guns in the book, they are not that important: people discuss guns in terms of fashion just after discussing their nail polish shades, and when the person who leads the most challenging endevour in the future society (the outer solar system observatory) considers not bothering to wear a gun, his friend doesn't defend the practice of wearing a gun as being required for a healthy society - he simply says that his friend will be experience social discomfort if he violates the cultural norm.
Robert Evans
61. bobsandiego
Persoanlly, I would vote this one as his worse, but that may due tot he fact I never finsihed reading it. I started the volume, grew very bored and just enever finsihed to task of slogging through it.
This coming from a person who had started his SF reading in his teenage years with RAH. (My sister's fault, she put The Starbeast into my hands for a bookreport.) I've read and re-read most of his library, but this book just left me totally cold.
Andrew Love
62. AndyLove
And as I meant to mention regarding "Beyond this Horizon" Heinlein's far future utopia's chief economist has never heard of Adam Smith (and has no particular interest in hearing about an economist from the pre-scientific era).

P.S. Apologies for the hijack - I agree that "To Sail" is the worst of Heinlein - there are passages of value in Friday, Cat who Walks, and Job, but "To Sail" (as far I as recall - I read it eagerly, immediately after it came out ) has none of that.
Ruthanna Emrys
63. R.Emrys
I've got to disagree with all these candidate's for his worst book--To Sail Beyond the Sunset tries for something worthwhile and fails, but Podkayne of Mars is flawed in its basic conception. It's possibly the only book that I would actively try to disuade a child from reading. (My mother is a librarian and didn't blink when I read Stranger in a Strange Land at 11, so I have a fairly high threshold there.)

Farnham's Freehold has similar issues, but it helped me make some good points about post-apocalyptic fiction in an essay once, so I have a soft spot for it.
Improbable Joe
64. Evan H.
There are three Heinlein novels I deeply dislike. This one, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, and (bookending his novel-writing career from the other end) Rocket Ship Gallileo. (I'm sorry, the moon nazis are unforgivable.)

For years, those were the only Heinlein novels I had never re-read. But I did eventually get around to trying RSG and TCWWTW again... and yep, they're still terrible. TSBTS I couldn't even bring myself to pick up again, though... so I suppose I'll have to agree it's his worst. (I've only hated it the one time, though, so at least that's something. :) )

I actually kind of like all his other late work, though. Flawed they may be, but I like them all, particularly Job, which I think is very well-plotted, and Friday, which is rather a mess but a lot of it is hilarious.
Kevin Maroney
65. womzilla
@JohnArkansawyer,

The most concise version of the The Fantasies of RAH joke is: that all women want to have sex with him and that all men want to listen to him.
j p
66. sps49
It's probably just me, but when I read "Nazis on the Moon!" I hear

"We're whalers on the moon,
We carry a harpoon.
But there ain't no whales
So we tell tall tales
And sing our whaling tune."

And I still like Rocket Ship Galileo.
Improbable Joe
67. CarlosSkullsplitter
39: following up to myself. Given Heinlein's retcon of the Japanese in To Sail Beyond the Sunset -- which includes a Kristallnacht/Rwanda style massacre of Japanese-Americans and a Soviet-style occupation of Japan that deliberately targeted Japanese places of worship in reprisal attacks -- why on Earth would we root for the future America in Heinlein's retconned Future History? It is a much worse place than our own, no matter what the narrator says, and only a few years away from a religious dictatorship.

(If Time Enough For Love is any guide -- it may not be -- Heinlein's future United States did not have any Civil Rights movement that allowed for significant amounts of miscegenation. We know this because the Howard characters are slightly obsessed with their genealogies, and talk about the minimal black and Asian components of their ancestry: they're rather wistful about it. In comparison, one in six new marriages in the United States is now interracial.)

Maureen Johnson's politics are close to Heinlein's late-life politics, but perhaps it was a jape on Heinlein's part. For instance, the lip-smacking relish with which Johnson talks about the quick sentencing and hanging of a drug dealer might be a sign that Johnson's opinions are not Heinlein's, since Heinlein considered himself a libertarian of some sort. On the other hand, many libertarians are perfectly comfortable with a broad application of capital punishment and the criminalization of drugs.
Clark Myers
68. ClarkEMyers
#67 - You may be right. I suggest some instances from The Cat Who Walked Through Walls including the explicit praise of the 442 and the leg that wasn't paid for suggest otherwise. See also the no true Scotsman fallacy.

As I've said other places I read Rocketship Galileo shortly after first publication - given the then use of the fruits of German research in such things as adding swept wings to the Republic F84 which started with straight wings ( see also F86 and such) and the popularity of writings by Willy Ley it was quite possible for the star struck to hope for even more fruits of an admittedly tainted tree - something beyond the V2 just as the V2 was the first stage of America's efforts (Wac Corporal et al).
Jim Hardy
69. JimZipCode
You guys are generally making a category error, turning to an era of Heinlein's that you don't like, to identify his worst novel. No way. Even the most sprawling and undisciplined of RAH's late works still has stuff of great interest in it. Here, the depiction of young Maureen's America is crystalline and spectacular, some of the most engaging writing of his career. And later the action during the Blitz is also very well written. The "historical" sections are rendered very lovingly: worth the price of the book. Also the divorce section between Maureen & Brian is quite interesting.

I do agree with Jo's comment about ruining The Man Who Sold The Moon, which is an awesome story. But isn't the reason that Maureen misses the late 20th C, because Zebby rescued her from the late 20th C? Heinlein doesn't elide over it: the continuity has Maureen absent from it. Right?

Anyway – I come not to praise Sail, which I do not love, but to bury other books.

Sixth Column is putrid. No redeeming quality whatsoever. Its least-bad points are weak rehashings of other (better) early Heinlein stories. Its worst points are shockingly racist.

Farnham's Freehold is no picnic. I try not to slam this book, because I think RAH was trying to execute a very nasty satire and succeeded too well, but Farnham is a tough read. By what logic is it "better" than Sail?

Lost Legacy (novella, not quite novel length) doesn't have anywhere near the control of voice and setting, the mature skill, that RAH displays by reflex in Sail. It's got some compensating manic energy, but you wouldn't call it well-written.

Orphans of the Sky reads today like an outline for a massive novel, not like an actual piece of finished fiction.

Honestly, Rocket Ship Galileo isn't that good either. Not up to the standards RAH set with the later juvies. It's fun as an artifact, and invaluable as the cornerstone of the juveniles, but it's not very good on its own merits.

I don't share the same knee-jerk hate of late Heinlein that most fans have. Yes I find the incest creepy (not so much Lazarus & Maureen, but Deety & Jake, and I think in this book there is stuff between Maureen's husband and their daughters), but you can see where he's going with it. But there is a lot of interesting stuff besides the incest, and RAH is going for larger, more complex literary effects than he's gone for before. The late books are definitely not garbage.

I think most would agree that Heinlein's career shows a continued growth in the "skill" of writing novels, by which I mean the bread-&-butter mehanics of setting and dialogue and revealing events, structuring a scene or a few chapters. Fans deride the last works for failures in judgement, not bad writing. It follows then that his worst books are probably earlier, when his writing skills were less developed. And I think that's what we see. RAH's late works may be disappointing or flawed, but none of them is The Worst. Some of his earlier stuff is so bad it's forgotten.
Colin Bell
70. SchuylerH
@69: TSBtS was my first Heinlein book. I didn't actively hate it but it was three years before I read anything else by Heinlein, namely Farmer in the Sky. (Then again, I'm sure I read "All You Zombies-" in some form around five years before TSBtS, though I no longer appear to have a physical copy.) Out of the sample I've read, I would say that Farnham's Freehold was his worst.
Improbable Joe
71. Barbara G. Louise
To Sail Beyond the Sunset is his worst book, I agree. And I want to take the opportunity to say what revolted me the most: Gallows permanently in the town square, to hang "drug dealers," not the very rich drug lords but the little people who sell illegal drugs to other little people -- like me -- in order to survive in the vicious competative financial system we all live in: capitalism. The idea of a village or a neighborhood with a gallows permanently reminding the populace that the government will gladly and frequently kill it's citizens who are not rich. In public, so even little children can see the condemed die and dangle. Revolting. In a society in which the most dangerou drugs are legal: nicotine and ethyl alcohol. The hypocracy sickens me. In Sail, Heinlein broke my heart with that one. I a now 70. I've been reading him since I was 9. He's one of my favoriete authors, especially his juveniles. His collboration with Spider Robinson was great.
Improbable Joe
73. ENT-TT
Hunh. Well, to each their own.

I'll lead by admitting that my opinion isn't a fair match, here. To start, I've only read five of his books: Future History (which includes TMWStM), Stranger, Cat->Walls, Mistress, & Sunset. That said, I love them all, and Future History was the last I'd read. Second, I am not a publishing author, so I've yet to amass a suitable pile of applicable prejudice. See? Alliteration; clearly amateurish. I know my place.

That said, given his vocal opinions on censorship, morals, religion and sin, taking issue with his explicit forays into human sexuality seems egregious and petty. Get over yourselves; saints you are not, nor shall you ever be.

As to his organic style etc., I withhold comment, as my ignorance is broad enough to devalue my own opinion, even to myself. But as to continuity, or to Maureen hooking up with George from “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” Robert did indeed supply an explanatory mechanism; you either didn't care for it or you didn't notice it. The George you know did NOT hook up with Maureen. As I recall, Japan had something to do with it. The George who buckled to her charms was the product of other factors, but I'll admit that keeping all the alternate timelines straight can be something of a challenge. I'd like to believe that if you applied yourself a little more, you could derive enjoyment from something that otherwise holds a negative power over you, but that's glib and conceited and born of confirmation bias. Since I have the same problem with other books, I should take my own advice, and since I don't, I won't expect anyone else to either. But I do enjoy keeping track of my own hypocrisies. As to Sunset spoiling the plot of other books.. well I guess that's a personal problem. I had read Sunset before Future History, and it didn't spoil a thing. The next year I heard an old X Minus One radio show presentation of The Man Who Sold the Moon, and that didn't bug me either. Why shoot myself in the foot? A pan of spam is a ham to a hungry man.

I do agree with JimZipCode, in that lumping together the works of one period just to take issue with your own distaste seems a rather shallow approach. While Stranger is my favorite, Sunset is a very close second, which led me to question those aspects I found valuable in comparison to some of the opinions mentioned here. I took an objective approach, but as I'm close to the problem, my focus is clearly a bit myopic. Here's what I think, though:

I grew up in the southeastern US, where cultural and religious oppression were the muddy ruts of our dirty roads. I never much cared for such idiocy, but one can neither ignore nor divest oneself of context. When you’re surrounded by the kind of sycophantic, moralizing, auto-fellating knob-knockers we have down here, you can’t help but appreciate a perspective which calls them on their crap, or better yet, hits them in the face with a hot shit-pie. For those whose weeks did not include the church-born devils of Sunday Best, I expect they’d be closer to bored than impressed. Next, the reasons I’m drawn to Heinlein’s work are less to do with form than with content, especially perspective. I do have pet peeves when it comes to form, as one bad editor can churn a story from haute cuisine to gutter butter in the space of a lonely fart. But whatever the faults of his fictional tectonics, they have yet to over-ride the obscene enjoyment I take from the wisdom he chose to offer. I learned far more, even as an adult, reading between the lines of a single chapter of Sunset than I ever had in the whole of my public education. Was I looking for different lessons? Undoubtedly. I’ve since found them in the words of other authors, largely due to finding them first in Sunset. Can I empathize with those who find it the rambling babble of a dying man? No, but I’d still take his babble over the bibles of most, and I’m not even his target audience (“To little girls and butterflies and kittens”). As I’ve yet to decide on a least-favorite book, I would offer that my least favorite story was either “Delilah and the Space Rigger” (reads like a propaganda pamphlet), or “The Green Hills of Earth” (sappy & maudlin).
Improbable Joe
74. railfancwb
I appear to be quite late finding this thread, judging by post dates.

What caught my attention was a running sub thread about what his editors did or did not do for Heinlein's later works. Yet (unless I missed it) no one mentioned the rare, possibly unique, opportunity "Stranger" presents to compare a submitted manuscript with an editorially demanded tight rework of that manuscript. Because of some wording in the copyright law Virginia Heinlein was able to obtain an additional copyright on the manuscript which was then published. Both renditions of "Stranger" are readily available in new and used copies. The book as initially published is - what - three fourths the words of the manuscript.

If you have read both renditions, which do you prefer and why?
Colin Bell
75. SchuylerH
@74: OK, firstly, I generally prefer the first half of Stranger in a Strange Land. Because of the way the novel was cut down in the first edition, I feel that the uncut version reads more like classic Heinlein on a sentence-by-sentence level (compare "Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith." with "Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith.").

However, I prefer the early edition because I feel it has better pacing: in the uncut version, there's a lot more of the philosophising which, while quite novel in the early 60's, seems somewhat passé these days. On the whole, I got through the earlier edition at a fair clip but I invariably find myself getting bogged down in the second half of the uncut version.
Improbable Joe
76. NPHighview
Regarding ralfancwb's question about which edition of SIASL is preferred and why: I much prefer the edited version, and find the unedited version excessively wordy, wandering, with others of the same problems found in the later (presumably unedited) novels, such as Number of the Beast.
Look at the two editions of Stephen King's "The Stand" - the original release, assertively edited, is a much stronger novel. The "author's edition" has extraneous plot loops that detract from the focus of the book.
My point: whenever authors get too big for their britches, and get to exert editorial control, the quality of the writing goes downhill fast. Viva Editors!
Nancy Lebovitz
77. NancyLebovitz
I read the uncut Stranger back when I knew the edited version fairly well, and I thought there were some good bits in the longer version, but on the whole, the edited version was more focused. IIRC, a lot of what was cut was logistical details of how people organized things.

In re Time Enough for Love: When I read "earth as lap, earth as grave" in Gilman's Moonwise, it hit me that the real charge between Lazarus and Maureen wasn't exactly the incest, it was that he comes back to his mother, and she doesn't recognize him. What's more, she will utterly reject him unless he joins a war he knows is pointless. This is the stuff of nightmares.

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