Heinlein on my mind

Heinlein has been on my mind over the last few days because he keeps popping up in various places. Fellow Arlington Writers Group member, Libby Heily recently recommended Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Heinlein came up somewhere else in conversation. And, of course, Heinlein has two stories in the May 1941 Astounding: “Universe” under his own name; and “Solution Unsatisfactory” under his pseudonym, Anson MacDonald.

Robert Heinlein was one of the Big Three of science fiction (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). Of the three, he is the one about whom I have the most mixed feelings. I really enjoy some of his fiction and I really dislike some of what he wrote.  And whereas I generally see eye-to-eye with the political and scientific views expressed by Asimov and Clarke, I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Heinlein. One significant difference, I think, is the fact that while Asimov and Clarke were clearly fans of science fiction, Heinlein seems more of an outsider, someone who came into the genre with some ability to tell interesting science fiction stories, but without the passion for science fiction that other writers of his time had.

The first Robert Heinlein fiction I ever read was his novel The Puppet Masters (1951) during my junior year in college, back in 1993. At the time I was a big Piers Anthony fan and somewhere in his writings, Anthony mentioned reading and loving Heinlein’s Puppet Masters. I recall sitting in my apartment bedroom reading the book in virtually a single sitting. I enjoyed it but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. (Some years later, I was invited to a screening of the movie The Puppet Masters, where the audience was paid to watch the movie and give their opinion on it before it was released. I didn’t much like the movie.)

I really began to read more of Heinlein a few years later. In 1996 I read what I still think is probably the best novel I’ve read by Heinlein: Double Star. It is a short novel and I think Heinlein tends to work better in the shorter form than in the longer form. WIth one exception, his longer novels were always disappointing to me. But Double Star was fantastic. About a year later, I read the bulk of Heinlein’s Future History series of stories, as collected in The Past Through Tomorrow. I really enjoyed his short fiction. He seems to be a much more capable short fiction writer than a novelist, in my opinion. “Life-Line,” his first published story, was remarkable for a first story and when I read it again for my Vacation in the Golden Age (Episode 2), I still thought it was a good story.

My favorite Heinlein short story (of those that I have read) is “Requiem.” Indeed, I think this is one of the finer stories produced in the early Golden Age. (See Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 7).

I went on to read other novels by Heinlein. I read Podkayne of Mars and Starhip Troopers. The former I really enjoyed, which I think goes against the grain for the reviews and commentary I’ve since read on that novel. Again, it is a short novel. The latter was a pretty good book as well, more important for the decades-long dialog on war it established within the genre. However, I did not like one of Heinlein’s most popular novels, his 1960 Stranger In a Strange Land. It took me three attempts over the space of a couple of years to get through the whole book. It thought the first part of the book to be pretty good, but overall, I felt the book was an attempt by Heinlein to keep up with the changing trends in science fiction and to try to act like one of the new kids on the block.

I took a break from Heinlein after Stranger and didn’t read anything by him for several years. When I finally returned to him, I read two book that I enjoyed, one more than the other. First I read his time travel novel, The Door Into Summer, which while nothing special, I found to be a fun read. Immediately after, I read Friday. I really liked Friday and in what I have read of Heinlein, it is second only to Double Star. From the opening of that book, Heinlein achieves a tone and voice that are both mature and even sometimes humorous and it is the only Heinlein novel that I’ve read where I find some hint that maybe he is a fan of the genre after all.

Later, I read another of Heinlein’s award-winning novels, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but again, I wasn’t particularly struck by it. It was a good book, but it seemed to me to be too heavy on message, a political argument by fictional example.

Now, I am in the process of reading a lot of Heinlein’s early fiction as I progress through my Vacation in the Golden Age. 1941 has been a particularly prolific year. He has stories in most of the issue of Astounding and in many of the issues (like the one in which I am currently reading) he has two stories–one written under a pseudonym. I am getting to read some stories that I’ve never read by him before and I am enjoying most of what I read, although at times, I find Heinlein being too politically pedantic for my tastes.

There are, of course, many gaps in my Heinlein reading, the most obvious being the fact that I have not yet read Have Space Suit–Will Travel. I imagine at some point I’ll close those gaps.

But there is also some bitterness involved. As one who is always interested in the “behind the scenes” of science fiction, I read Heinlein’s Grumbles From the Grave when it came out and in that book, Heinlein comes across as mean-spirited. That has colored my image of him and couple with the fact that he never struck me as a fan of science fiction, it makes him feel like an outsider to me.

I have Patterson’s biography of Heinlein but haven’t yet had a chance to read it. I am looking forward to reading it at some point.

So what’s been your experience with Heinlein? Do you love him? Hate him? Never read him? Certainly he is a central figure in the evolution of science fiction as a literature. How has his work influenced you?

7 thoughts on “Heinlein on my mind

  1. I think you’ll find Patterson of interest – I’ve read excerpts but not the whole Patterson biography.
    One thing I think you’ll find is that he was a fan of the genre; he started writing in response to a contest in one of the mags, and you don’t find out about those without reading the mags.

    I have to say, there’s nothing by RAH that I dislike. Some stories have only (only) been re-read three or four times, others tens of times. His big three are Moon, Stranger and Starship Troopers, with most aficionados giving a nod to Double Star as well. Of the juvies, Have Spacesuit is generally regarded as the best. My own faves are Moon, Starship Troopers, Door Through Summer, Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, Time Enough For Love, Friday and Glory Road. Stranger in a Strange Land I’ve read at least thirty times and can’t stomach anymore. Rather than finding fault with it, this is more like having eaten about 8 dozen chocolate chip cookies straight from the oven. The next dozen are just not appealing at all right now.
    I think he did a lot of good for the genre – introducing story concepts and/or offering up a seminal treatment of many basic plot themes, kept the science (of the day) rigorous, plausible, understandable; helped expand the reach of science fiction (getting into publications like Sat. Eve. Post, Boys Life, etc; movies – Destination Moon, TV series), forging links between space efforts and the genre, and leaving us plenty of controversy for blog discussions and articles.

  2. I’m not sure where you got the idea that Heinlein wasn’t a fan of the genre but history doesn’t support that at all. He was a huge fan of H.G. Wells when growing up. He kept up with the pulps up to and through the time he was writing in them. He spent time with and was personal friends with most of the big names in science fiction from World War 2 and onward. Not sure where you’ve gotten the idea but it simply isn’t true.
    In the same way, I think you’re misreading the timing on ‘Stranger’. It wasn’t ‘keeping up with the trends’, it was setting them. An easy mistake to make from nearly 50 years on.
    I can see where ‘Grumbles’ would seem petty and angry. Try to remember that the longer letters all necessarily dealt with criticisms and rewritings, a subject which is contentious, more often than not. In other words, it’s not a good read for the author as a person. If all you knew about someone as a person was a lawsuit they were involved in, you would certainly not have good feelings about them, even though it might be a very small chapter of their life.

  3. Peder, Grumbles is where some of my idea that he wasn’t a fan of science fiction came from. Some of those letter are indeed petty. But there are other places I’ve gleaned it as well. Many writers from Heinlein’s era wrote fan letters to the pulps, even after they started publishing. Asimov did this, of course, as did Clarke. Milton Rothman did it. Lester del Rey and Damon Knight did it. I’m not saying that to be a fan you have to have had letters published in the pulps, but it is another outward sign of one’s participation in the machinery of science fiction fandom. Also, I’m not saying that you have to be a fan to be a good science fiction writer. Many of Heinlein’s stories (particularly his shorts, but also several of his novels) are good. I’m just saying that from the body of his work that I’ve read, coupled with his letters, and vignettes I’ve read about him written by others, he seemed to be the least fannish of all the Golden Age era writers. Of course, I never knew Heinlein, and so I must depend on my own judgement of his work and his letters. I could be wrong. But right or wrong, this is the impression that I get. Maybe reading Patterson’s biography will help change my impression.

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