Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Heinlein’s contradictory views on race

In the comments on my earlier post on Heinlein, race, and diversity, I’m taking heat for my assertion that Heinlein was enlightened by the standards of his day, but often falls short by the standards of ours.

I was speaking specifically of the Heinlein of 1946, who wrote Rocket Ship Galileo (which both Charlie Stross and I apparently misidentified as Space Cadet). But throughout Heinlein’s career he displayed a mix of tolerance and celebrating diversity, alongside some ethnocentrism and sexism.

On the whole, Heinlein was admirably welcoming to different ethnic groups, women, and alternative sexual orientations, especially for a man of his era. But he wasn’t perfect.

Let’s start with the most obvious example first: In 1964, he published Farnham’s Freehold, a novel where the black people rule America, kept white people as slaves, stole white men’s wives to have sex with them, castrated white men, and practiced cannibalism on white people.

I understand what Heinlein was trying to do with with that novel, and I actually rather enjoy it. But then again I can afford to be tolerant about the whole thing. I’m white.

I don’t think Heinlein intended Farnham’s Freehold as a racist novel, and I’m not sure it is racist. Then again, I’m not sure it’s not racist. You can certainly read it that way. What do black people think of the book? What do white supremacists think of it?

Another example of Heinlein’s idiosyncratic record: William Patterson, author of the new Heinlein biography Learning Curve (to be published Tuesday), says that Rod Walker, the hero of Tunnel in the Sky, is black. If he says so, that’s probably right, but the clues are buried deeply in the book. You might even say that Rod is passing for white—not to his fellow fictional characters, but to his white readers.

You can find many more appealing portrayals of race relations by Heinlein after Farnham. Two years later, in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the hero is arrested on a charge of miscegenation in the American South. He comes from a mixed-race family. Not only does the hero think that’s normal, it never occurs to him that anybody could think there was anything more to it.

I’m not trying to tear down Heinlein here. He was admirably welcoming of all kinds of diversity, especially for a man of his era. He is, as I said in an earlier post, one of my heroes. But he wasn’t perfect, and it isn’t disrespectful to speak of his flaws under the circumstances, especially as he moves from being a contemporary to being a historical figure.

Mitch Wagner is a fan, freelance technology journalist and social media strategist, who blogs about technology on the Computerworld Tool Talk Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @MitchWagner. He’s looking for a publisher for his first science fiction novel, and hard at work on his second.


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