Sun
Jul 7 2013 9:00am
A Sober and Verbose Reflection on Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein by David A. Johnson Today we commemorate Robert A. Heinlein, who was born on this day in 1907. He is a giant in the science fiction genre, but like most giants, his path to literary greatness was tangled and circuitous. His naval career ended in the 1920s when tuberculosis scarred his lungs. He attempted real estate and silver mining, ran for political office in California, and only began writing to make a mortgage payment. His first story, “Life-Line,” was published in the August 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, after Heinlein realized that Astounding paid more than the prize money for the contest he had originally entered. This began a long relationship with Astounding’s editor, John W. Campbell, who published much of Heinlein’s work through the 1940s.

When the second World War began, Heinlein went to Philadelphia to work as a civil engineer, recruiting L. Sprague de Camp and Isaac Asimov, as well as his future wife, Virginia Gerstenfeld. (She would become his first reader and later suggested he write a story about a human raised on Mars.) Even after his writing career took off, he devoted much of his time to stonemasonry. Throughout all of these pursuits, he used his writing to question social mores and explore ways humanity could create an interesting future for itself. 

Heinlein’s writing career spanned four decades. He was invited to comment on both the moon landing (alongside Arthur C. Clarke and Walter Cronkite) and the use of space technology to advance medical care for the elderly. He won Hugos for Double Star, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and was nominated for both Hugos and Nebulas for several other works. In 1976 he was awarded the first Grand Master Nebula for Lifetime Achievement by the Science Fiction Writers of America, which later became The Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award, now awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He continued to produce nuanced and controversial work until his death in 1988, despite prolonged periods of illness.

However, what truly makes Heinlein one of the great, foundational figures of modern science fiction is his intellectual curiosity, and his willingness to question life and society through his writing. His work in social science fiction was informed by a complex response to culture, and he insisted on following his ideas wherever they took him—even when that meant going against popular opinion or risking book sales. While Starship Troopers was a conservative reaction to nuclear development that stressed social responsibility and militarism verging on fascism, Stranger in a Strange Land focused on progressive stances toward religion and sexuality that were embraced by the counterculture of the 1960s.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress investigated rational anarchy and polyandry, and The Number of the Beast looked at the idea of the “World as Myth,” which posits that fictional realms imagined by writers become as much a part of the multiverse as “real” ones—and allowed Heinlein’s characters to visit Barsoom and Oz. He gave the world the concept of grokking, which was useful enough to gain traction in both the hippie and computer programming communities during the 1960s and 70s. He also popularized the acronym TANSTAAFL (“There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch”) and promoted the social philosophy of “paying it forward,” which is now one of the cornerstones of The Heinlein Society. He used his creative work to question the world around him and dream up new ones to explore, and he invited all of us to come along.

9 comments
Maria M.
1. Maria M.
I have greatly enjoyed many of Heinlein's novels, but this article glosses over any of the more controversial aspects of his oeuvre, as seen from today's vantage point and values.

I am not sure that the author does justice to Heinlein, by being positive and superficial rather than giving us material for a substantive discussion of his merits and ideas. Heinlein himself would not have shied away from the latter.
Jenny Thrash
2. Sihaya
#1: This is a mere summary, of course, and a kind eulogy on the anniversary of his birth. I see nothing wrong with that. A summary *glosses over* alot of things, by its very nature. Click the tags to find the website's more complete, chronological critique of Heinlein's works a couple of years back, where he's probably buried slightly more often than he's praised.
Maria M.
3. Bob Munck
I think it's an important point that Heinlein wrote very well for young readers. Through the effect of the Heinlein Juveniles inspiring post-war teenagers, he may have had more influence on the U.S. space program than Wernher von Braun.
James Nicoll
5. James Davis Nicoll
Through the effect of the Heinlein Juveniles inspiring post-war teenagers, he may have had more influence on the U.S. space program than Wernher von Braun.

A bold hypothesis but do bear in mind that if you're one of the people who laments the current state of the US space program due to a lack of Lunaville and Marsports, you're blaming Heinlein for at least part of that.

(Personally, I find the US space program, in particular their robotic probes, pretty impressive)
Maria M.
6. Jon P Ogden
Does the author of this piece have any idea what the definition of fascism is? If so did he read the book, or just watch the misbegotten movie?
Robert Munck
7. BobMunck
@James Davis Nicoll: you're blaming Heinlein for at least part of that.
Not much; the technical types whom he inspired weren't the ones making the decisions that led to the current state. Maybe they should have been, and maybe Heinlein didn't say enough about questioning authority.
(Personally, I find the US space program, in particular their robotic probes, pretty impressive)
I'm with you there. Putting Curiosity on the surface of Mars was every bit as impressive as putting Armstrong on the surface of the Moon. Maybe more so. Given current advances in computing, communications, sensors, and effectors, it's hard to justify manned exploration. However, I'm counting on mobs of people spreading out over the entire solar system once the first Space Elevators are up.
Maria M.
8. Brooks A. Mick
And his books were of the "brown and useful" sort, guides to effective living, handbooks on how to grow up and be an adult.
Maria M.
9. HelenS
And his books were of the "brown and useful" sort, guides to effective living, handbooks on how to grow up and be an adult.

*shudder* Um, no, I can't agree. I'm still unlearning some of the crap I got from him.
Maria M.
12. Samreen M
It is always desirable to pay homage to those who contributed to human life. Heinlein was, no doubt, a renowned writer. Being a post World War II writer, the conflict between individual liberty and societal rights was his major concern. At one place he says, “Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy.” Aphorism is the hall mark of his writing. In Stranger in a Strange Land he says, “Love is that condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.” Anyhow nice post!

Samreen M
Bolee.com

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