Archive | April, 2018


3 Apr

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


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!


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.”