Heinlein–Introduction

3 Apr

This is the first draft of the introduction to the Heinlein Project.  Comments and suggestions would be welcomed.

Introduction

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 neighbours think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” – what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

-Heinlein

This book has rather an unusual genesis.

In 2017, or thereabouts, I read a review of Podkayne of Mars that was, I felt, something of a hack job. I’d read the book myself – I’d gone on a Heinlein kick a decade ago and read everything of his I hadn’t already read – and I hadn’t thought it was that bad. So I re-read Podkayne of Mars, decided that the reviewer was either wrong or simply interrogating the text from the wrong perspective and wrote a review myself.

The matter might have rested there if, a few months later, I hadn’t noted Amazing Stories publishing a handful of retro reviews. Reviewing books is something I enjoy, if there is meat within the text, and so I volunteered to write a review of Starship Troopers. Steve Davidson, who currently runs Amazing Stories, asked me to consider writing reviews of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land. I did … and, as I had the bug by then, I determined that my next review would be Farnham’s Freehold.

My memories of the book were … less than positive. It wasn’t exciting enough to grab me as a young reader (I had the same problem with Starship Troopers) and I’d heard a number of canards about racism aimed at the book. Bracing myself, I reread … and my eyes were opened. Farnham’s Freehold includes racist characters, in the same sense that Huckleberry Finn includes racist characters, but it is not a racist book. Indeed, unlike more modern authors, Heinlein actually convinced me to take (some) microaggressions seriously. And yet, Heinlein is called a racist?

Part of the problem, of course, is that society has moved on. What was daring and original in Heinlein’s early years – and what could be got through the gatekeepers – reads as bland and boring to us now. There is nothing special, these days, in basing a book or a TV show on a character who isn’t a straight white male. Heinlein was ahead of the times and then behind the times, without ever having a time when his views – as presented to us – meshed comfortably with the real world. His juveniles – which we would probably consider YA these days – are really quite astonishingly clean. Sex is barely even mentioned. Even in his later years, when he wrote to shock as well as to make people think, there is little revolutionary – to us – about his ideas.

It is difficult to place matters in context when one is unfamiliar with the past. Heinlein, in his early years, worked under a series of restrictions that would shock us today. He had no internet, no email … he was dependent, in many ways, on people who weren’t particularly invested in his success. Heinlein’s words must not only be comprehended, they must be placed in context. He was a product of his time and, while by their standards he was staggeringly progressive, by ours he comes across as a little old-fashioned.

But the other part of the problem is that Heinlein, being seen (and rightly so) as one of the founders of modern-day science-fiction, has been attacked for not being perfect. This is part of a broader trend, where historical figures (almost all white men) are charged with not being modern figures who should hew to modern morality. George Washington, for example, owned slaves (a point Heinlein himself mentioned in The Rolling Stones); Winston Churchill was a firm believer in the value of British imperialism, to the point where he was strikingly reluctant to give India any form of self-government, let alone independence. And yet, these great men did great deeds. Heinlein, for all his contributions to science-fiction, has faced similar attacks. And most of those attacks are unfounded.

I returned to my rereading, reading and reviewing my way through a number of Heinlein’s more significant works. As I did so, I came to realise that most of the charges levelled against Heinlein were not only unfounded, they were flatly contradicted by the words in the text. That alone was annoying, but what was perhaps of more significance was a growing understanding of precisely why Heinlein became – and remains – popular. Heinlein wrote about characters who were, in many ways, living breathing humans. His heroes faced dilemmas that still resonate today. The guild system of Starman Jones might, in a modern-day book, be replaced by an evil Human Resources department more interested in setting up racial quotas than hiring and promoting by merit, but the basic principle remains the same. A talented youngster, unfairly excluded, must decide if he should prove himself … or cheat the system.

I also noticed that there were a number of themes running through his works that still spoke to his readers today. Some of those themes were easy to spot, others were subtle; Heinlein often set out to make his readers like a character before using them to illustrate unfair issues that held them back. And, often, Heinlein wasn’t so much preaching to the choir as he was preaching to a particular subset of readers; his juveniles, for example, were often aimed at teenage boys. This sometimes caused them to read oddly – or offensively – to readers who weren’t teenage boys. But to judge the books by the standards of something they’re not – as one might complain that books for toddlers are simplistic – is simply unfair.

I do not pretend that this is a biography of Robert A. Heinlein. I have no special insight into his personal life that hasn’t come from biographies I read myself. My aims in writing this book are threefold:

First, to read and review Heinlein’s most significant works, placing them into context.

Second, to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works and consider how many of the charges levelled against Heinlein are actually true.

Third, to consider what lessons Heinlein can teach us today, with particular reference to modern-day political and social issues.

Heinlein is accused of being a racist. I cannot speak to his personal views, but I firmly believe – and I will explain why – that his works were not racist. Indeed, they were strikingly progressive for their time. Heinlein is accused of being a sexist. Again, I cannot speak to his personal views, but his worlds were not – generally – sexist. Heinlein was bad at writing women, yet even this observation must be placed in context. Heinlein was …

It is my belief that Heinlein was a dichotomy. Just as Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers represented, for a while, the bibles of both Left and Right, Heinlein himself was a complicated mixture of cold-blooded realist/pragmatist and hot-blooded fantasist. He knew too much about humanity – particularly men – to fully embrace the more rationalist (in the sense that their characters are rational) worldviews of some of his successors, but – at the same time – he wanted people to be better. He was aware – realistically speaking – of how society’s chains held people, particularly women and blacks, in bondage, yet he also preached of worlds where those chains had been left in the past and forgotten. Very few people – and Heinlein knew this – are wholly good or evil. Heinlein was neither a angel nor a devil, but a man.

I think this is both the reason why Heinlein is still admired today and why there are factions in fandom that detest everything about him. Heinlein refused to pretend that the real world didn’t exist, let alone ignore very real problems facing the men and women (white and black) of his era. Heinlein worked hard to make it clear that most of his characters did not have a friendly scriptwriter watching out for them. There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, Heinlein told us. This theme became more pronounced throughout the later years of his writing. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein asks what right mankind has to survive. And he’s right. Why do we have a natural right to anything?

There are people who insist that the destruction of the Native American societies was effectively a horrific genocide. They’re right. It was. But no amount of breast-beating will change the simple fact that it happened, or that human history tells us that the strong will always overpower the weak. (All those jokes about how different history would have been if the natives had an immigration policy have a nasty sting in the tail – immigrants did come to America and displace the natives. Why would anyone want to repeat that experience?) I think that Heinlein understood reality in a way many of his successors simply did not.

In his later years, Heinlein loved to shock. He would push forward controversial ideas – cannibalism, incest, etc – forcing his readers to actually think … and then question the foundations of their society. He asked questions that needed to be asked, although many of his answers were weak; he shocked, but then tried to show the consequences and downsides of breaking society’s rules. In doing so, he laid the foundations for much – much – more.

To some extent, as his career developed, Heinlein slowly shifted from writing adventure stories to writing literature. Many of his early works were thrilling stories for young men – often subjected to the editor’s pen – but his later works were more elaborate pieces of literature, more interested in developing their ideas than telling a story. (One of the reasons I didn’t like Starship Troopers as a young man was because it is a philosophical work, rather than an adventure story.) In some ways, it allowed him to get his ideas across, but – in other ways – it weakened them. He was still more effective, as a writer, when he didn’t hammer his ideas home. He trusted his readers. It is a lesson that many more modern writers could stand to learn.

I’d like to finish by paraphrasing a quote from Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell that, I think, fits Heinlein like a glove.

“It is the contention of modern critics that everything belonging to Robert Anson Heinlein must be shaken out of modern SF/Fantasy, as one would shake moths and dust out of an old coat. What does they imagine they will have left? If you get rid of Heinlein you will be left holding the empty air.”

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12 Responses to “Heinlein–Introduction”

  1. Robert L. Smith April 3, 2018 at 4:34 pm #

    Chris, I’m enjoying your Heinlein reviews. I “cut my sci-fi teeth” on his juveniles back in the 60’s and then started reading his more adult novels shortly thereafter. (THAT was confusing, LOL)
    Along the way, I was further confused by a older acquaintance who disdainfully told me that Heinlein was a “Fascist”. Being as she was kinda cute, I took her seriously, even if I really wasnt sure what Fascist MEANT.
    In any event, I am curious.. where are you going with this? What IS “the Heinlein Project”?

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 3, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

      Sadly, I doubt that your friend had any objective idea of “what Fascist meant”.

      Anymore “Fascist”, “Racist”, “Sexist”, etc. don’t actually mean anything, they are just terms to throw out when the speaker doesn’t “like” the other person’s views.

      I suspect that Chris is intending to show the Real Heinlein instead of the Straw-Heinlein that many people believe in.

      • Pyo April 3, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

        A serious conceptual flaw, then, if what you say is true.

        One should set out to see what’s there, and then come to a conclusion. Not setting out already having concluded what you want to find.

      • Ihas April 6, 2018 at 4:31 am #

        I think fascist means a view that the good of the individual should be sacrificed for the good of the state. I recall an interview with a WW2 nazi who explained that they viewed themselves as idealists. I imagine it can be a very seductive viewpoint. After WW2, a lot of world leaders saw how effective it was and starting trying to use it. I think JFK’s famous quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” is an example. The contrary view would thus be that the state exists to promote the welfare and freedom of the individual, which is what I was taught.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard April 6, 2018 at 4:50 am #

        A few years back, I read a review of a TV movie made of Orwell’s Animal Farm.

        The reviewer correctly said that “Animal Farm” was a criticism of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

        But the review also called “Animal Farm” an anti-fascist novel.

        The supporters of the Soviet Union would be very surprised to know that they supported a “Fascist” Nation.

        Sorry Ihas, but it doesn’t matter what you or I think Fascism is. For too many people, Fascism is “Any Point Of View That They Disagree With”.

  2. Dave April 3, 2018 at 8:22 pm #

    I was a great fan of Hienlien in my late teens so the early to mid 1970s
    I remember reading Stranger in a Strange Land and thinking that it was the best SF book that l had ever read

  3. William Ameling April 3, 2018 at 8:22 pm #

    Since so many of his works were written in the 1950s, and had to appeal to teenagers as well, there were a lot constraints on what he could get past the editor and publisher.

    Another thing to consider, a lot of those works were written to be published, often in parts, in the Science Fiction Magazines or magazines for juveniles (possibly even Boy Scout related). A classic Heinlein book is Citizen of the Galaxy, which comes in 4 clear parts for magazine publication, and gives us a feel for 4 rather different societies, by a very capable young man who was made slave as a small child. Even though his parents were the richest of the rich.

    I think even the books that were intended to be juvenile books were usually published as well in the magazines. Back then, very few SF novels appeared only/first in book form. So that is another thing to consider when reviewing those books.

    Heinlein also used training and teaching situations/institutions in MANY of his stories as a way of getting across to us his ideas and make us question our own. He also often had young people being trained and educated far beyond what contemporary students were, and gave them (us) at least some idea of just how much there was left for us to learn. Many of his young characters could probably described as geniuses, but we could still feel some relationship with them. Exploring the training/school element in his Books would be an interesting study, that has probably been done many times in the past by others, but would be useful to a reviewer of many of the Heinlein books.

    I think that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is the transition point between his juveniles and books intended to appeal to older audiences. I think I first read “Moon…” in High School as a sophmore or junior, and “Stranger in a Strange Land” as a senior (I graduated from High School in 1971).

    I always found “Starship Troopers” interesting because of it’s direct link between serving the society in the military and other national service organizations, and getting the political franchise. If you did not serve, you still had all legal rights, but to get the right to vote and be elected to any political office you had to serve first. You did NOT inherit political Citizenship, you had to serve yourself. This did NOT mean only MEN, many of the naval officers/crew (on their Starships) were women, in particular, most of the pilots were women. It was also NOT WASP, many of it’s people serving were outside that as well. His point was that historically, political rights were tied directly to being able to serve militarily (look at the difference between Sparta and Athens in Classical Greece, it cost a lot more to equip yourself as a Hoplite or a Horseman warrior, than it did to row a ship). In fact the transition to large mass armies in the 1800s lead directly to those poor and lower and even middle class men eventually (it took some time) getting the right to vote, as well as more legal access and protections that had been previously denied to them. Once Women started supporting the War efforts in World War 1 and then World War 2, it became a lot easier for them to gain and keep political rights as well. This also carried over into minority and racial minority groups gaining legal and political rights.

    I think that the Far Left Liberals would FAINT and DIE at the idea of having to serve in the military and other national service organizations, to get voting political rights and be elected to political office or serve in the government bureaucracy. This does not mean that many military members are not Democrats, because many of them were and are. I doubt that very many of their (Far Left Liberals) sons and daughters go to the military academies or enlist today. That is part of the problem with the Far Left Liberals, they do not understand modern militaries and do not know how to use (and not use) them. In fact, they are normally hostile to spending any money on military matters.

  4. Pyo April 3, 2018 at 11:38 pm #

    Doesn’t have all that much to do with that intro specifically, but I really wish you’d get over the “…” thing. I can decide myself when to pause while reading; I don’t need to be clobbered over the head with [Stop!] signs.

    Sure, yes, that’s sort of what punctuation is for, but an ellipsís is really just one(!) step away from emphasis using exclamation marks in the middle of the sentence and so on. Or maybe smileys 😉

  5. Dani April 3, 2018 at 11:42 pm #

    There’s a saying that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 12 (or 13 or 14, depending which version you’re quoting). The books that thrill us when we start reading science fiction will always seem special. For many readers, Heinlein was one of the brightest stars of their golden age.

    A fan is someone who enjoys the better works that fall within Sturgeon’s 98%. You don’t have to be a fan to enjoy the other 2%. You don’t need to be a romance fan to enjoy “Pride and Prejudice”, or a mystery fan to enjoy “Gaudy Night”. You don’t need to be a fantasy fan to enjoy “The Lord of the Rings”. You do need to be a fantasy fan to wallow in most of the fantasies that will come out this year and be forgotten a decade from now.

    I don’t think Heinlein has staying power. Influence, yes. Significance, yes. He shaped generations of readers and influenced generations of writers. But most readers today, coming to a Heinlein novel cold, will not care for it. The writing is out of date, the milieus are out of date – heck, his future is out of date. That doesn’t take away from what he wrote, any more than Lofting’s no-longer-acceptable tropes take away from Dr. Dolittle. (I recently saw a Dolittle reprint with an introduction that explained, apologetically, that they had made changes because the book was literally unpublishable in its original form.)

    Heinlein doesn’t need to be attacked or defended. His were some of the best science fiction books being written at the time, and they paid the rent. They aren’t the books he would have written today, had he been born over half a century later. They aren’t the books most people want to read today. And that’s okay. Heinlein is a fondly-remembered author – especially for those of us who encountered him during our Golden Age of Science Fiction – and that fondness doesn’t depend on how his books affect a modern reader, or on how they will affect a reader decades from now.

  6. Anarchymedes April 4, 2018 at 3:53 am #

    First, about ‘getting the facts’. For all my fear of boring everyone with my repeated quoting of Nietzsche, ‘it is precisely facts that do not exist, only interpretations’. Figures and numbers can be given different meaning. Events, we only know of from the accounts of the witnesses, which means, filtered through their perseption, and tinted by their personalitues. So give up this pathetic search for facts: as with Zen, the harder you try, the father you’ll be from success. Besides, in case someone still hasn’t noticed it, people love their delusions, stereotyoes, and cliches and will not be parted from them. ‘Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.’
    And if we’re talking about making scapegoats and creating targets for our righteous ire (once again, Nietzsche, who is now one of those targets simply because the Nazis also quoted him, has weighed in on the subject: ‘He who is punished is never he who performed the deed. He is always the scapegoat’), then Heinlein isn’t the first, nor will he be the last. Jack London and Mark Twain are banned, I hear. Finn J. D. John in his annotations to the audiobook version of Robert E. Howard’s The Hour of Dragon mentions the rasism — also remembering to add that for a 1920s Texan, Howard was amazingly liberal: at least, in his works the black people occasionally have names and personalities.
    Which is what this is all about: the context. Edgar Poe, at 26, married a 13-year-old girl. Monster! Paedophile! Ban him now! George Washington owned slaves. Shock! Horror! And which well-to-do American didn’t, at the time? Alexander the Great was, in the modern terms, polygamous and bisexual. Shall we now root out all mentions of him? Guess what? Even Abraham almost sacrificed Isaak: because at that time, everyone did it; child sacrifuce was quite common in the late Bronze/early Iron Age (makes one wonder where was God looking at the time, but that’s by-the-by; besides, He probably knew we’d need time to grow up and learn).
    This iconoclastic desire to dig up the great people’s (or the modern-day celebrities) dirty linen is nothing new: even before Herostratus, there must’ve been people like that. Jealous little creatures who want to avenge their own insignificance with everyone, forgetting that the human failings is not what makes the great people great. Proving anything (especially the mythical ‘facts’) to them is, IMHO, a waste of time and energy. So let them rant away: when they and their rants are long gone, the great works will be remembered. Just like Homer’s Iliad. Interesting though: the ‘fact’ that in the original Iliad, Odysseus personally murdered the baby Astyanax has been quietly disregarded by all modern adaptions. The thing is, Odysseus is meant to be likeabke, and for a modern reader/viewer, a man capable of such deed will never be likeable. Although at the time, it was no big deal.

  7. sam57l0 April 4, 2018 at 9:28 pm #

    As best I recall, my first Heinlein came in serial form in Boy’s Life, and it had to be The Rolling Stones. I missed The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for a few years when I was in the service.

  8. dichroic April 5, 2018 at 9:32 pm #

    I loved Heinlein and still do, and I am a fan of judging people in context. OTOH, even in context I’d say that his last couple of books totally jumped the shark. I want to reread Friday soon, and I expect I’ll still find a lot to like in it. I’d call Job a failed experiment – some interesting stuff going on, but it commits what Heinlein himself would have considered the cardinal sin: it bores me. Anything after that I hope never again to have to reread in this life.

    Number of the Beast was the one that first hooked me on Heinlein, as a 9th grader. I loved it once; I suspect I’d also class it as an experiment that’s not entirely successful now, but it’s still got so much cool stuff going on that I’m sure I’ll reread it a couple more times. (Plus I’m a total sucker for books that romp around other literature, like NotB and Silverlock.) But …. there’s a meme going around on FaceBook right now, for women to describe themselves as a male author would, which generally involves a lot of dwelling on one’s own breasts … and my first thought was “Deety!”

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