Introduction What were you doing when . . . ?
Life-defining events come in all sizes. Everyone experiences the big, public ones together:
• the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy
• the Moon landing
• the Challenger disaster
• the morning of September 11, 2001.
The small-scale, personal events are shared by ones and twos:
• your first kiss and the song that was playing on the radio, your first dance
• the day your father or mother died.
For hundreds of thousands of people around the world, Sunday afternoon, May 8, 1988, was one of those life-defining moments. Phone trees formed spontaneously, friend calling friend: “Have you heard the news?”
The wake of grief widened and circled the globe several times that day, as it had when Mark Twain died—to Germany, and to France and to Italy. On it went, to Yugo slavia (a country itself now gone) and to the Soviet Union, to Shanghai and on to Japan; north, to Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and south where the scientists at McMurdo Sound in the Antarctic had gathered around him a few years before, to shake his hand. Robert Anson Heinlein died that morning.
Heinlein’s hard-core un-common sense, dosed out mostly as entertainment, had given the parentless generations of the mid-twentieth century something of what previous generations had gotten, in quiet moments one-on-one with their fathers and their tribe’s wise men: their portion, all they could take, of life wisdom. They counted Heinlein their “intellectual father,” as an earlier generation regarded Mark Twain, and now “his” boys—and girls—were grown to responsible maturity, hands on the tiller. They had needed, sometimes desperately, to hear what he had to say—not slogans, but tools:
What are the facts? Again and again and again—what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget “what the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history”—what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pi lot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue.1
The story of Robert A. Heinlein is the story of America in the twentieth century, and the issues he concerned himself with—and the methods by which he grappled with them—were cutting-edge for his time. When Heinlein began writing, science fiction was in a struggle to lift itself and its readers out of Victorian notions, and he was immediately recognized as a leader in that Modernist struggle. After World War II he took on “propaganda purposes,” as he styled them, that required him to reframe science fiction again, to talk, not just to excited genre readers and editors, but to the general public, who could use the intellectual tools science fiction had created before the war to grasp and manage their increasingly technology-dominated future.
It is a truism of literature that the prestige forms of one era grow out of the subliterary forms of a prior era, and Heinlein’s writing career spans the transformation of a subliterary pulp genre into a significant dialogue partner at the interface of science and public policy—a transformation for which he is in no small degree responsible.
Like his mentors, H. G. Wells and Mark Twain, Heinlein became a public moralist, sure that what his readers really needed to know was how the world actually worked—dangerous knowledge and subversive, especially in his influential novels for young readers.
Robert A. Heinlein was not a “public” figure in the usual sense: he had won people’s hearts and minds on a retail basis, one by one, in the close community of a reader and a book.
What he meant to his readers grew slowly over the years. The ner vous teenager who stood in the shade of the Gate House of the United States Naval Academy and took the Midshipman’s oath on June 16, 1925, was a rustic by the standards of the society he was moving into, all raw potential.
In 1947 he became a public figure when he pioneered science fiction into the prestige general-fiction magazines with four moving stories in The Saturday Eve ning Post. In 1949 he was pioneering again, into a truly massentertainment form—the motion pictures, the first modern science-fiction film, Destination Moon. A local tele vi sion station filmed a forty-seven-minute featurette on the making of the film, and Heinlein assured Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public that what they were about to see they could make happen anytime they were ready to open their pocketbooks—twenty years at a guess.2
And twenty years later, Heinlein sat in a makeshift CBS studio in Downey, California. It was July 20, 1969, and Eagle has landed. Walter Cronkite and Arthur C. Clarke were talking heads on the studio monitor . . . and they wanted him there for commentary, when he was too excited, almost, to talk at all.
Heinlein had yearned for the Moon for most of his life, and he had done what he could to make it happen—in aeronautical engineering in the Navy, then writing about it, making it real to readers after the Navy chewed him up and spit him out in 1934. Destination Moon was released in 1950 and caused a national sensation by visualizing for the people of the world the first trip to the Moon. Heinlein got on with his real work, teaching people how to live in the future. Now, in 1969, he was a celebrity again, his big satire on hypocrisy, Stranger in a Strange Land, still picking up steam, though almost nobody seemed to understand it was not a book of answers, but a book of questions.
Heinlein grew up in the horse-and-buggy midwest of Kansas City. He lived through the Jazz Age and the tearing poverty of the Great Depression. He churned out bucketsful of pulp, and this is where it brought him. He had hit it almost on the dot: his fictional lunar landing in “The Man Who Sold the Moon” was set in 1970, and it was happening only five months early.
“This is the great day,” Heinlein would tell Cronkite:
This is the greatest event in all the history of the human race, up to this time. This is—today is New Year’s Day of the Year One. If we don’t change the calendar, historians will do so. The human race—this is our change, our puberty rite, bar mitzvah, confirmation, from the change from infancy into adulthood for the human race. And we are going to go on out, not only to the Moon, to the stars: we’re going to spread. I don’t know that the United States is going to do it; I hope so. I have—I’m an American myself; I want it to be done by us. But in any case, the human race is going to do it, it’s utterly inevitable: we’re going to spread through the entire universe.3
The Moon landing came and went, but Heinlein endured, always framing the hard questions. So successful was this writerly mission that Heinlein was increasingly sought out as a guru—a position he rejected. At almost the same time Stranger was speaking to the spiritual life of a new generation, so, too, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was galvanizing another movement of young people coming together. The movement has suffered many ups and downs, but well into the twenty-first century, libertarianism is with us still, still fielding presidential candidates, and still holding out Heinlein’s vision of what an untrammeled society might look like.
And on and on it would go, for nearly twenty years more, putting into words what people—his kind of people—thought and felt, telling the hard truths, the ones that needed to be told, the ones that all people needed to hear. And for that grandfatherly kindness he was given what can only be called love.
And in the selvages of his time and energy, in the chinks of time he had left between the books, “do with thy heart what thy hands find to do.” He helped change blood collection ser vices over to an all-volunteer donor force, and then went to work on the new great project, ending Mutual Assured Destruction.
Just months after his death, the Cold War ended: its great symbol, the Berlin Wall, was taken down, and the Soviet Union collapsed, unable to move into the future Robert Heinlein had laid out for us.
For all that the world of the twenty-first century is troubled by the breakup of the Soviet bloc and its aftereffects, the disappearance of whole nations devoted to the systematic brutalization of their citizens was something Robert Heinlein was proud to participate in.
In death he moved on to the next frontier: his and his wife’s entire estate was devoted to founding the Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities, the essential next step in establishing humanity in the cosmos. “It’s raining soup,” Heinlein once said of the benefits of space and its limitless resources, “grab a bucket!”—words as true now as when he wrote them first, decades ago.
For almost fifty years Heinlein conducted a dialogue with his culture, a dialogue that, once started, continues in his works—still asking the hard questions (and undercutting any answers you might think you have found!). And people responded to what they could sense of this greater dialogue, even if they didn’t always have the words to talk about it. The story of his public influence is almost unique in American letters, grouping him among a select company of American writers who had found “tipping points” of social crux and galvanized social change of some kind:
• Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) portrayed labor conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry and galvanized support for Theodore Roosevelt’s Pure Food and Drug Act, thereby ushering in the twentieth century’s regulatory and legislative style;
• Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) inspired the National Club movement, a wave of radical political action that was the precursor to the Populist movement, now largely forgotten but enormously influential in the last years of the nineteenth century;
• Harriet Beecher Stowe’s melodrama Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) galvanized the Abolition movement around its portrayal of cruelty, abandonment, abuse;
• Thomas Paine and Common Sense (1776) provided the statement of the plain sense of the American cause and unified the colonies in the Revolutionary War.
And even among this select group of writers-cum-culture-figures, Heinlein is unique. He galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement.
Robert Heinlein spent his life—and his fortune—pushing and pulling us into our future, in a continuing contest for the human mind, in a dialogue with everything in the twentieth century that deadened the human spirit. His books remain in print—every one of them—twenty years after his death (a commercial fact that puts him in a very select group of American writers) because they continue to speak to the indomitable human spirit.
Ultimately, this should not be surprising. He grew up immersed in the radical liberal movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and almost the whole of the concerns that characterize his later writing are rooted in this tradition. His extraordinary fame, literary longevity, and cultural impact—in art forms, in cultural movements, and in political movements—rest on his strong affirmation, first to last, of the liberal-progressive values he held crucial—values Americans continue to hold important.
Was he a science-fiction writer? He was—and yet the category simply will not contain him. He did not float on the currents of the current; he continued to grapple with the hard issues throughout his long life. His life is a witness: in showing us how he “did” a concerned, substantial human being, he showed us how we might do it, as well—different in the details, because every human life is different from every other—but always the same in substance.
Heinlein’s job, as he conceived it, was to keep before us those perennial values, those essentially American values that belong even more to the world and to the future. Robert A. Heinlein was our bridge to the future, no less now, twenty years after his death, than during his life, begun so very long ago. Early in the last century, during that time of unimaginable ferment that was the Roaring Twenties, he collected hard questions for himself. His books and stories are interim reports on what he learned. His importance for us is that he learned better, he learned how to stand outside the box of assumptions that preoccupy us all.
The first phase of his education on the hard questions took him nearly half his life, the period I have designated his “learning curve.”
1. Robert A. Heinlein. Time Enough for love. Virginia edition, p. 253.
2. Eleven minutes of the featurette is included as a Special Feaure on the DVD collection The Fantasy film Works of George Pal (1985).
3. Transcribed from Virginia Heinlein’s personal videotape of Robert A. Heinlein’s appearance on CBS television, July 20, 1969. CBS destroyed the original videotape, and a copy was provided them from a digitization made by the author in 2001 (with Mrs. Heinlein’s permission).
Copyright © 2010 by William H. Patterson, Jr.