Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein: Strangely Human

Hello, all:

I’m going to start off my contribution to this little online discussion of Heinlein by noting the gift this first volume of the Heinlein biography gave me, which is the ability to think of Robert Heinlein in terms of being a struggling writer, rather than Robert Heinlein, Grandmaster of science fiction.

This is no small feat. To give a little perspective on the matter, Robert Heinlein was given the Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America (now the Damon Knight Grand Master Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), back in 1975, when Heinlein was sixty-eight years old and I was six, and still years from my first encounter with his work—which was Farmer in the Sky, which I read in fourth grade.

By that time Farmer in the Sky was nearly three decades old, and the vast majority of Heinlein’s work had already been published, including the three indisputable classics of his career: Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. For as long as I knew of him, Robert Heinlein was Robert Heinlein, the science fiction equivalent of The Beatles, in that he didn’t invent his genre any more than they invented theirs, but after each were done, everything after in their respective genres was assessed by how it compared (or reacted) to their output.

It’s impressive, but it’s also distorting. I never met Robert Heinlein, who died when I was in college and long before my science fiction writing career, nor did I ever meet anyone who knew Robert Heinlein until 2003, when I lucked into a long conversation with Robert Silverberg(!) at a party at TorCon 3, my first-ever science fiction convention. So for over two decades, my view of the man was essentially one of a writing monolith—someone who was a writing idol (along with H.L. Mencken and John Lennon, and yes, what a weird writing idol triumvirate that is), but who didn’t really have any particular human qualities for me.

Even the story of how he started writing science fiction—he needed money, saw a science fiction magazine contest, wrote a story and then submitted that story to another magazine that paid more than he could have won in the contest—seemed more of a picturesque character note than the travail of an actual human. Ultimately, it didn’t really seem like Heinlein struggled much. But then why would it; when you view things from a distance—and a hazy, rose colored distance at that—those little details will elude you.

Learning Curve, however, is jammed with detail about Heinlein’s early years (which in this case take him up to 41 years of age, the same age I am now), and definitively put to rest for me the idea that it all came easy for him, or alternately that any deprivation that he suffered was destined to become just a colorful background note to the life of a Great Man. In point of fact, Heinlein’s day-to-day writing life in his 20s and 30s was not notably different than the day-to-day writing life of a large majority of writers whom I have come to know: Lots of writing, lots of conversation with clever, unconventional people who are both your friends and your rivals, a fair amount of angst about when the hell this writing thing is actually going to work out, and over it all worries about money, and the getting of same.

Here’s an excerpt of a letter Heinlein wrote to Ginny Gerstenfeld, the woman who would become his third (and final) wife, when he was 41 and waiting for some desperately-needed money from a possible screenplay:

I’m tired and have had several disappointments, frustrations and dilemmas lately and I’m feeling poor. A sale would help a lot, especially the sale of this movie… I had hoped to sell this screenplay before coming out flatfooted with plans—coming, as it were, to lay a bag of gold at your feet. I know you have never held out for a thin dime, but the subject of money matters to me when I haven’t got it. The presence of poverty and the fear of poverty goes way back into my childhood; I wanted us to start out right, with a good bank balance and a healthy chunk of paid-up life insurance as an estate. Well, maybe I’ll get it yet.

This isn’t the letter of a man confidently astride a literary genre like a colossus; it’s the letter of a guy who wants to marry a woman he loves, is depressed that he doesn’t have what he feels he needs to make it work, and is mopey about it. It’s the letter of a guy who has had some successes, has made a name for himself, but is still waiting for what used to be called the “main chance”—the opportunity that changes his fortunes. Anyone who’s gotten past 40 and is still looking for that main chance is excused for being a little mopey about it. In point of fact Heinlein’s fortunes—financially and as a writer—were on the verge of taking an upswing not too long after this letter. But of course, he wouldn’t have known it at the time.

Now, the fact that it’s in some ways clarifying to me that this Great Man of science fiction could make it into his fifth decade with a certain amount of frustration and uncertainty—like nearly every other human, much less every other writer—says more about me than it does about Heinlein, and I quite cheerfully cop to a certain naivete in terms of my vision of who Heinlein was, and additionally cop to that naivete being rooted in no small part in laziness, i.e., hey, should I have to think that hard about Heinlein the human being when he left all these much more entertaining works of fiction lying around? I am a naturally lazy person, and for better or worse, the only way I will ever know Robert Heinlein, short of a Lazarus Long-like fiddle with the time stream, is through others.

Be that as it may, the exposure to Heinlein’s prosaic humanity—the accounting of his frustrations, worries and failings—is useful as a reminder that at the end of the day, or of a career, or of a life, everything that came before came out of someone who is not so different than any of us that his achievements are unapproachable for mere mortals. Yes, I know, again, a naïve statement. On the other hand, imagine yourself as a science fiction writer, looking down the barrel of Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s easier to deal with those if you say, “Oh, well, that was Heinlein, you know.”

Well, yes, it was Heinlein, a guy who had his fair share of digressions, disappointments, petty stupidities and dissipations, and who hit 40 not knowing who it was he would finally become. I’ve admired Heinlein for a long time, and I’ve respected him and much of his philosophical worldview, particularly the idea of “pay it forward,” which he helped ingrain into the science fiction community. But now I can also say that I sympathize with the man, and I understand him a little better—and also that I like him. He has his flaws, of course. But don’t we all.

John Scalzi’s first published novel Old Man’s War was a finalist for the Hugo Award and won him 2006’s John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; since then, he has published five more novels. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, a collection of essays from his popular weblog The Whatever, won the Hugo for Best Related Work in 2009. He is currently serving as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.


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