Robert A. Heinlein: The Blog Symposium

Some responses to the opening posts of the Heinlein discussion

I’ve just gotten back from Duluth. My intention was to keep up with discussion in the evenings, but torrential downpours on some days combined with losing the car key on the beach and having to get a locksmith out to make a new one in the middle of Wisconsin Point, surrounded by biting flies, pretty much ate up the evenings.

Instead of posting comments in discussions that may be winding down, I’m going to make a couple of posts of my reactions. I’ve included links in case anybody wants to reread the posts I’m responding to.

Mitch Wagner: Thanks for this nicely organized overview. I tended to get bogged down in the fascinating details when I was reading the biography, myself, so it was very good to have a broader view. With regard to Heinlein’s beliefs and thought processes at the time the biography treats of: I read about Leslyn’s practice of witchcraft quite happily—I have friends who are witches—but was still boggled to read an actual quotation from Heinlein himself saying that Leslyn was coping with “something that keeps trying to come up the basement stairs.” I did always think of Heinlein as a strict rationalist, although a dispassionate examination of his works doesn’t support that.

I guess his approach was, as you mention, that one should ascertain the facts. Given that, he just didn’t, at least at that time, seem to divide the world into preconceived categories of things that can have facts ascertained about them and things that can’t. That’s a more flexible mindset for a writer than strict rationalism, but also should help to prevent haring off after complete nonsense. Nothing will completely prevent a write—or a human being, for that matter—from doing that, but this seems a useful position to be in. It seems to have served Heinlein well.

John Scalzi: We’re far enough apart in age that our experiences of Heinlein are different, but I read your excellent piece with a strong sense of recognition just the same. I knew about Heinlein’s early writing career, but what I had assumed about the monolith that was Heinlein to me as a child, and to me as an adult too, at the later part of his career, was that anybody who wrote the way he did—as much, as long, as well—must surely have had a strong ambition to be a writer since childhood. But Heinlein had nothing of the sort. He wanted to be in the Navy. After that he wanted to be in politics. He wanted, it seems to me, to make a particular sort of difference in the world, and writing fiction was not among the ways he originally intended to make it. He seems to have just fallen into writing when his dearest ambition was killed, because he desperately needed money and was not in good health. This realization knocked a number of my semi-conscious assumptions about writers and how they work on their ears. And of course, it further humanized Heinlein for me. Despite knowing more than you did about how he struggled to establish himself as a writer, I had mythological beliefs about him too, and it was interesting to have them shaken up.

Sarah A. Hoyt: Thank you for this piece, which I read with much sympathy and recognition. I almost confessed what I am about to say in the above reply to John Scalzi, but I felt the lost opportunity too keenly. But your account of being unable to begin the biography at first really brought it back to me. In 1976, as most of us know, Heinlein was the Guest of Honor at Midamericon in Kansas City. I was between college and graduate school, staying with my parents in Omaha. One of my best friends from high school was going to the convention specifically to meet Heinlein. She begged me to go too, even offering to pay the registration fee, a horrific fifty dollars, since I was pleading poverty. But the truth was, I didn’t want to meet Robert Heinlein in the flesh. I knew he was in his books. I wasn’t actually sure where; it was all a mosaic, and I was pretty sure, having just spent four years studying English literature, that he wasn’t where I believed him to be.

But I didn’t want to see the person walking out of the mosaic. Partly I felt I would make an idiot of myself, but mostly I was not ready to meet the human being who had written and disjointedly inhabited those books. I only wanted the books. I still kick myself over this decision, of course.

Jo Walton: I think that our differing response to the girls and women in Heinlein’s books is partly a result of the difference in our ages. I was born in 1953. Friday was published in 1982, well outside the childhood time where I got my strongest impressions of Heinlein. A second part of of the difference also just comes down to personality. I was a weird but definite kid and there were essentially no gender roles for me to fit into. I wholeheartedly rejected anything remotely feminine, but was not enthusiastic about anything masculine either. I did not want to cook and have babies and I did not want to be an engineer or a baseball player or a soldier or a politician or any of the myriad careers open mostly or solely to men. I wanted to be a poet. Truthfully, the person with whom I identified most in Heinlein’s early works was Rhysling in “The Green Hills of Earth.” This was a struggle.

I was too respectable in my inclinations to feel comfortable fitting into his skin, and yet he clearly understood what was really important in the world. Third, I think you were and are a smarter reader than I.

I was deeply glad to read that Heinlein’s work had a more wholesome effect on you than on me, though.

Charlie Stross: Oh, good, you have just written, from a different perspective, about half of a post I was struggling with. The contradictions in Heinlein’s positions on many topics are fascinating. I was looking, in the half-written post, at his coexisting attitudes that women can do anything but that within marriage they should not work because they might take bread from the mouth of somebody worse off (that is, not married). When he and Ginny were living in the trailer and he was really struggling with writing, it would have made a great deal of sense for her to get a secretarial job, as she wanted to do. But even though Heinlein was not actually making any money at the time, she couldn’t do that. Married women take bread from the mouths of the unmarried, but married men don’t. I cannot get my mind around that. There’s also the fact that Heinlein apparently never had a thought of monogamy for either partner in any of his marriages, but still expected his wives to give up their jobs and move to where his job was; that was just taken for granted.

I’m also very grateful for both your and Jo’s perspective as non-Americans. Heinlein’s strong Americanism went right over my head when I was reading the books as a child, and I came to a realization of how very strong and possibly off-putting it can be fairly late in my acquaintance with him. In fact, he probably formed such patriotic ideas as I possess.

Pamela Dean is the author of Tam Lin, the Secret Country trilogy, and several other works of fantasy. She was a founding member of the Scribblies, the self-organized writers’ workshop that also included Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Kara Dalkey, and Patricia C. Wrede. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.


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