Review: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

17 Jun

The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein

-Farah Mendlesohn

It may surprise a few of my readers to learn that I don’t place much credence in literary criticism, although I have written a piece of lit-crit myself. Critics have a tendency, in my view, to miss the forest for the trees, to indulge in ‘presentism’ and view the author through a very modern-day lens. This can be infuriating, at times; it is difficult to understand certain works of prose – Romeo and Juliet, for example – without some understanding of the realities of life in Shakespeare’s time. And critics also have the habit of over-thinking matters, declaring that the author’s decision tell us that the curtains were blue was a reflection of deep-seated depression when, in fact, the author meant to tell us that the curtains were blue!

Farah Mendlesohn, thankfully, has managed to avoid most of those errors.

By any reasonable standard, Robert A. Heinlein has had a massive impact on the science-fiction field, but his works have rarely been given any substantial analysis. Indeed, most modern-day critics have judged Heinlein by our standards and declared him to be sexist, racist, bigoted, etc. Others, in the meantime, have been completely uncritical of Heinlein and his works. He was one of, perhaps the, founding father of our genre and attacking him (particularly as the wokescolds try to drag his name through the mud), feels like treason.

After a brief assessment of Heinlein’s life and career, Mendlesohn starts to assess the themes running through Heinlein’s works. Heinlein was very focused on the family, but the family one chooses rather than the biological family one has. This spans a range between the happy – and very 50s-typical – Stone Family to the family Lazarus Long built for himself towards the of Heinlein’s career. As Heinlein grew older, he grew more cynical; the Stones are an ideal family, in many ways, but the Farnham Family is an utter disgrace. Curiously, although he is often branded an individualist, Heinlein talks often about the need for social support structures – familial, rather than governmental. Heinlein’s heroes are never true loners. They have support from their families and friends.

Mendlesohn is quite adapt at recognising the concealed racial markers encoded into Heinlein’s text (she spotted several I missed during my own overview), although Heinlein was often quite limited in what he could come out and say. This is a point that Mendlesohn doesn’t discuss openly – it is quite possible that Heinlein’s early books would have been rejected, outright, if he’d features openly black heroes and black men in positions of power. But he gave himself enough room to deny it, if necessary. One may argue that this was contemptible, but it was a fact of life. Later, Heinlein made it clear that he had created a series of multiracial worlds.

She does, however, point out that most of Heinlein’s coloured heroes were still, culturally speaking, Americans. Heinlein’s heroes might have been multiracial, but not multicultural. One might accuse Heinlein of a lack of cultural diversity here, particularly in the juveniles, but it should be noted that different cultures are not always better and it can be hard to empathise with someone from a culture so different to our own that their actions made no sense to us or come across as outright evil. I would not like someone who married a child-bride, for example, and I think most people would feel the same way. Heinlein’s early heroes are Americans because Heinlein saw the American ethos as the best in the world.

Mendlesohn also raises a number of interesting points regarding Heinlein’s female characters, both lead characters (Podkayne and Maureen Smith) and secondary characters (Betsy of The Star Beast, Wyoming of Moon). Some of them – Maureen and Betsy – start their careers as second fiddles, held back – directly or indirectly – by social conventions. They grow and develop as their stories develop – Mendlesohn points out that Maureen was a daughter, then a wife and mother and finally an independent women … Maureen couldn’t go back to motherhood, when her estranged children re-entered her life. She had outgrown the parental urge. Podkayne, by contrast, was the victim of failed parenting. Her parents were unable to give her the tool she needed for adulthood; nor, for that matter, was she surrounded by women who would aid her. (Duke Farnham, too, was a similar victim.) Indeed, Mendlesohn makes it clear that women within the novels played a major role in restricting other women.

In some ways, however, Mendlesohn is guilty of ‘interrogating the text from the wrong perspective’. Heinlein’s juveniles were written, first and foremost, for teenage boys – and teenage boys, by and large, are not interested in feminine issues. Heinlein glossed over them because he knew his audience would find it a turn-off. Successful female heroes – women, written by women – who appeal to men do it, in a sense, by turning away from traditional femininity. They are either surrounded by men (Hermione Granger) or exist in male-shaped universes (Paksenarrion). They are rarely involved with female social groups – the only real exception, as far as I can tell, is Mildred Hubble. But her books are written in a manner that allows boys to pretend that she isn’t classically feminine. Heinlein did not set out to be all things to all readers – a good thing too, as it is impossible.

This explains, I think, some of the weaker moments in his earlier juveniles. The main character of Red Planet shows signs of sexism, as Mendlesohn points out, but his sentiments would not be out of place for a teenage boy (particularly of Heinlein’s youth). Heinlein clearly evolved, as similar sentiments expressed within Tunnel in the Sky lead to an embarrassing case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Indeed, Heinlein would intentionally start writing his juveniles for girls as well as boys, but he kept boys as the core audience – a wise move, as girls will often read boy-books but not vice versa.

This has other effects on his writing. Mendlesohn points to problematic moments within the text – the failure of a father to admit, for example, that his daughter is more than just his daughter – but this is caused by the male mindset. Maureen argues, at one point, that men assume that a woman is subordinate until she proves otherwise. It would be more accurate to say that people (men as well as women) are pigeonholed very quickly and, once pigeonholed, have the greatest difficulty in climbing out of the pigeonhole. The male mindset leads to the same problems as female intuition; when it’s right, it cannot explain why it is right, when it’s wrong, it finds it hard to truly believe it’s wrong. Heinlein depicted this process quite accurately – and, in other books, argued that the only true way to counter it is to give the wrong person room to retreat. This does, of course, require a sensitivity that few people are encouraged to develop.

Her comments on racism within Heinlein’s works, including Sixth Column and Farnham’s Freehold, are interesting. Heinlein did not depict the Pan-Asians of Sixth Column very kindly, it is true, but the atrocities they committed are very pitiful shadows of the atrocities committed by Imperial Japan. To challenge Heinlein on this requires a certain willingness to ignore real-life atrocities (by 1941, it was clear that the Japanese were not being ‘decent’ in China) and Mendlesohn, to her credit, largely avoids it. She does point out that the ‘killing rays’ of the Sixth Column kill Asian-Americans as well as Pan-Asians, but this is an unfortunate – and logical – effect. The ray could not tell the difference between two different groups of Asians.

Mendlesohn also raises a number of points concerning Farnham’s Freehold – and concludes that the book is racist. This is a commonly-held belief, but it isn’t one I share. Mendlesohn suggests that Farnham’s Freehold is an ‘if this goes on …’ book; I see it, instead, as a ‘flipping’ book. Hugh Farnham and his family – a deeply-flawed group of people, as becomes clear on the second read – start in a position of ‘white supremacy.’ They then go through a short period of ‘equality,’ followed by ‘black supremacy’ and ending with the ‘aftermath.’ In doing so, they are shown – time and time again – what it is like to be on the opposite end of the scale. The book pulls no punches – every time Hugh starts to think that maybe life as a slave won’t be so bad, it pulls a rejoinder of ‘OH YES IT WILL!’

There is room for an entire essay here – In Defence of Farnham’s Freehold, perhaps – so I’ll content myself with a handful of points. Heinlein, throughout his work, identified two different kinds of slaveowner – the thug, who treats his slaves as mere possessions, and the paternalist who tells himself that slavery is for the slave’s own good. When Farnham’s Freehold opens, it becomes clear that Hugh is a paternalist-type, while Duke – his son – is a thug. Their roles are so embedded within their personalities that neither of them really adapts to the period of equality. Worse, when they enter the period of black supremacy, they find themselves at the mercy of another paternalist-thug duo. They are to be denied everything, from freedom itself to the slight comfort of getting away with a little defiance. They may even be eaten alive – the slaveholders of Dixie did not practice cannibalism, as far as I know, but the slaves were certainly metaphorically cannibalised. They were certainly denied any hope for a better future. By the time the book comes to an end, Hugh has come to realise – perhaps – just what it is like to have a taste of his own medicine. He had all the answers … he could argue and browbeat his son into submission … and so could his ‘master.’

Farnham’s Freehold raised points that needed to be raised. And if it made people a little uncomfortable, that might not be a bad thing. Mendlesohn assesses that it was an overall failure, but I disagree. It came as close as it could for a book of its time.

Mendlesohn’s assessment of Heinlein’s ‘male’ and ‘female’ selves is interesting and well worth a read, although it may be pushing things a little too far. She notes that many of Heinlein’s main characters are less interesting than their supporting characters, although – again – this isn’t always a bad thing. Max Jones and John Thomas are bland, compared to Sam and Betsy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not heroes. Indeed, their simplicity may be part of the lesson. Max surpasses Sam and comes to safe harbour, at least in part, because he’s honest enough to admit to the deception they’ve pulled; John Thomas defends a friend because it’s the right thing to do, while Betsy, who over-thinks everything, makes things more complicated (and, at worst, worse). There is little to quibble with here.

Her assessment of the underlying social structures Heinlein depicts is quite accurate – and, unlike some others, she refrains from blaming Heinlein for depicting them. Poddy’s lack of support from other women has already been noted – Maureen’s financial dependency on her husband, in addition, was quite serious in a world where men held the purse strings. (It’s really quite terrifying how something ‘normal’ can be weaponised if things go sour.) She also assesses the interaction between the public’ and ‘private’ lives of his characters, noting how they interact (and how things can go wrong.) She does, however, overlook a handful of contextual points – she notes that Lazarus treats Estrellita as property, denying her agency, but one can reasonably argue that this was for Estrellita’s (and Joe’s) own good. He regards them both as kids in adult bodies – a dangerous combination. Of course, this is also the argument that slaveholders made (which Mendlesohn notes) and, even though it is reasonably justified in this case, it does leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, it is difficult to assess this book.

Mendlesohn makes a number of very good points, although some are influenced by modern-day thinking and perceptions that Heinlein would have found very alien. She demonstrates that Heinlein seemed to have grown and evolved as he grew more confident, ranging from seemingly-trite adventures to pieces of literary merit. This may have been due to the influence of his second wife, who was a screenwriter and editor. She also makes it clear that Heinlein was very ‘woke’ for his era – he detested slavery, regarded rape as a great evil, created coloured and female characters in an era when no one would have batted an eyelid if he hadn’t. And she raises some interesting points about Heinlein’s relationship with guns, although I don’t agree with all of her conclusions. Heinlein did not fetishise guns, unlike some modern authors; he seems to have regarded them as tools, something to be used if necessary. It’s a valid point.

It’s assessment of how Heinlein was influenced – and later, uninfluenced – by his life is also very good. Mendlesohn draws lines between his naval service and his wartime work and shows how it might have influenced his writing – Heinlein put female characters forward, at least in part, because he worked closely with women during the war. (He wasn’t blind, either, to the issues raised by women entering a formerly masculine sphere.) The influence of both his second and third wives on his career are also discussed, raising the issue of just how many of his issues Heinlein was working out on paper. She also notes that, in his later years, Heinlein lost (at least some) touch with the world around him. It is hard to know how seriously to take this, but it is an interesting point.

The book also reads very well. It is an academic text, rather than a novel, but it avoids many of the boredom-inducing pitfalls common to textbooks. I enjoyed reading it and never felt the urge to skip pages or chapters.

The book also has weaknesses. It does not focus on each of the books, separately; it is easy to see how Heinlein evolved, but harder to place his words in context. In this, it is very like Heinlein in Dimension (free, online); it runs the risk of assuming that his characters speak for him, rather than accepting that Heinlein preferred to show us their weaknesses rather than beat us over the head with them. (That’s part of the reason I feel that Farnham’s Freehold rewards a second read, once the reader knows where the story ends and can follow the themes running through the story.) It also notes Heinlein’s weaknesses – the moments we would call ‘problematic’ – without always acknowledging that many of them would not have seemed problematic to Heinlein. He would have snorted, I think, at the idea that disguising Wyoh would be seen as ‘minstrelsy’ (or Blackface, a comparison Mendlesohn doesn’t draw, but one that occurred to me).

Heinlein was not fond of critics, not entirely without reason. Even in his day, a good critic could be a wonder – and a bad one a nightmare. But I think he might have liked this book – and, as Heinlein remains popular, we should ask ourselves why. You may not agree with everything in this book, but it will make you think. Mendlesohn treats Heinlein as what he was, a man. Not an angel, or a demon, but a man. An influential man, but a man nonetheless.

4 Responses to “Review: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein”

  1. Dani Zweig June 19, 2019 at 12:38 am #

    This is the most-recent of several articles about Heinlein which revolve around his political correctness, or lack thereof. I’m not sure why it matters that a man writing two or three generations ago did or did not pass today’s political sniff test.

    When I’ve discussed Heinlein’s books with other readers, the subject has never come up. Why would it? Who criticizes Austen for portraying characters who accept Regency-era mores uncritically. Who criticizes Melville for portraying characters who have no interest in saving the whale. I recently saw a new edition of Dr. Dolittle in a bookstore: It’s preface noted that the book had been modified because it was politically impossible to reprint the original Dr. Dolittle. There was no suggestion, however, that Lofting should be criticized for his patronizing depiction of Africans.

    Heinlein’s writing had a tremendous impact on science fiction, but the impact should be viewed through the lens of fandom. A fan of a genre can be defined as one who reads and enjoys mediocre works within the genre. And early science fiction was mediocre. I’m a fan. I have read and enjoyed science fiction from the twenties and thirties, forties, and fifties. But I acknowledge that what I am reading rarely has more than one dimension. Heinlein’s writing added a second dimension. The protagonists’ thoughts and characters mattered. Readers came to expect more and better writing, and in time they got it.

    Heinlein never lost sight of the fact that he was competing for beer money. That’s a good thing.

  2. Farah Mendlesohn August 18, 2019 at 5:51 pm #

    Thank you. A very thoughtful review. But an NB: child brides is an American thing, It’s not unAmerican.Only Delaware and New Jersey absolutely forbid it.

  3. Gregory Benford August 27, 2019 at 3:45 am #

    Good overview! ‘Presentism’ should be avoided, as it too will be judged, & not well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pixel Scroll 8/26/19 We Didn’t Start The File, It Was Always Scrolling Since The Fans Been Squeeing | File 770 - August 27, 2019

    […] history in the regard of author Chris Nuttall, who goes deep into Farah Mendlesohn’s book in “Review: The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein”. Nuttall ends a substantial discussion by saying […]

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