On Relevance and Robert Heinlein

One of my favorite stories from the creative arts came from an interview of Richard Burton discussing his early career. He’d been in a stage play in London and the Sunday Times came out with a review that apparently trashed his performance, as well as the play in general. Miffed, seething, confidence shaken, Burton took the review to Laurence Olivier’s house to get some sympathy.

Olivier dutifully read the review while Burton fidgeted. Finally, Olivier put it down, nodded, and said “That’s a very good review.”

“Good!” Burton exploded. “What do you mean, ‘good’? Look what he said about me! He says I’m terrible, I’m amateur, I’m this, I’m that!”

“Oh, yes,” drawled Olivier urbanely, “he does say all that. But look how long he takes to say it.”

It’s a lesson in impact, in relevance. In other words, Olivier meant, he couldn’t ignore Burton. Just because he didn’t like what Burton did, that didn’t mean what Burton was without considerable merit.

Sometimes we find something we just don’t like. We’d like to find a good reason not to like it, but the bottom line is, we just don’t like it.

That seems to be the case with Robert A. Heinlein, who has been getting soundly trashed, and at great length, for decades now, with no end to the verbiage in sight. On the occasion of his Centennial, for example, there is this screed in the L.A. Times.

Fading impact? How many column inches get devoted to a supposed has-been?

This is absurd. To me, Heinlein will always have a warm place in my memory. What he did, despite the attempts of so many to discredit that work, was show me how to think things through. That I came eventually to disagree with much of what he proposed I think would have pleased him. The one thing that is consistently present in Heinlein’s work, beginning to end, is his loathing of apathy and ignorance.

One of the pitfalls of judging writers of the past is applying present-day standards. It might be useful to occasionally perform that kind of exercise on our own works, to imagine how they’ll fall short to readers fifty years from now. A lot of our current politics will doubtless appear laughable, even tragic, but certainly among many will elicit a “how could they possibly have thought that?” reaction.

People bash Hemingway all the time for his sexism and his awkward handling of certain homoerotic characters and themes. But he was a major author, read by millions, who did groundbreaking work in his day. There is something of value in the work, evidenced if only by virtue of the fact that we’re still talking about it today. We advanced from then to now, built upon what he did, do things today which he–among others–made possible to do. To turn around and take a dump on him because he wasn’t as self-aware and sophisticated about it as we think we are is petty.

But let’s look at the major charges against Heinlein. Chief among them are: he was sexist, a fascist, narcissistic, and pedantic.

Hmm. In order, then.

Was he sexist?

This was a man who had had three wives and probably any number of lovers. He practiced nudism and for a time, with his second wife (apparently), indulged in polyamory–what we call alternately, depending on era and attitude, “swinging” or “an open marriage.” While one may certainly (and legitimately) suggest a degree of selfishness about this, one cannot alternately accuse him of being a possessive, classic chauvinist, since to live that way requires that one respect one’s partner’s freedom. But that’s using the personal to validate the fiction, the reverse of what is usually a major pitfall in literary criticism, namely using the fiction to analyze the personal—which happens to Heinlein all the time.

So what about the fiction? Where’s the sexism? Growing up reading Heinlein in the Sixties, I gotta tell you it came across as anything but. His women are generally independent, smart (often smarter than the men), with careers of their own, ambitions, and enough self-confidence for Emma Peel. For an adolescent male, that’s enough to provide a model and framework to sheer away from most culturally reinforced stereotypes that render women “objects.”

But wait! Most all of them become utterly devoted to a male and want to have babies. In some instances, they defer to male judgment. (I’m thinking of Wyoming Knot in The Moon In A Harsh Mistress as a glaring example.) Well, I suppose that’s a closet sexist wanting to dominate his females…except for one thing: these women choose. And they do not, generally, lose their brains in the process.

But there is a certain conventionality in the depictions of his love matches that is hard to square with the promise of progressive living suggested in most of Heinlein’s work. There is traditional marriage, traditional dewey-eyed romanticism, traditional…

Lazarus Long changes diapers, though. Minor thing, maybe, but in the context of the time just a bit revolutionary, especially in a genre that largely ignored that aspect of life. Maybe it’s not relevant.

But there is no question that, in his adult work, all Heinlein’s males and females really like to have sex, and there’s virtually no homosexuality in any of it. It’s a hetero universe, with but a few nods in the direction of gay existence. (One extremely embarrassing quote from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long attempts to make a case for homosexuality being spiritually abnormal and a subject for sympathy rather than condemnation. But the same charge of being uncomfortable and parochial about homosexuality can be laid at the grave of many a writer, male and female, of his era, even influential writers.)

Heinlein started something with regard to concepts of equality. Maybe he didn’t follow through as thoroughly as some might like, but given his position in the pantheon of SF writers, starting it should count more than the fact that he got a lot wrong.

Oh, yeah. I Will Fear No Evil…well, he blew it. In other respects, that’s not a great book. What? He doesn’t get to make a mistake? He gets condemned for not being able to actually think like woman? Feel like a woman? Understand the world like a woman?

Sexism, to my mind, is a habit of discounting the value of the opposite sex and relegating them continually, insistently, and perniciously to single roles. I do not see that habit exhibited in Heinlein. The one thing all his women have in common, as a ground rule, is the freedom and ability to Walk Away. And since he clearly sees that as one of the most valuable freedoms of individuals period, it forms the basis of his standard of equality.

No, I don’t think Heinlein was a sexist. I think he had a lot difficulty, like most people, in figuring out how relationships, both privately and socially, are supposed to work, and he talked about it. His conclusions may have been sophomoric, but…

Was he a fascist?

I open my Oxford Companion to Philosophy, turn to the appropriate entry, which reads:

Fascism. Political doctrine combining ethnic nationalism with the totalitarian view that the state should control all aspects of social life. Fascism is thus opposed to both liberalism–individual liberty and fulfillment being held to be relative to the nation’s, rather than vice-versa–and to communism–class identity and aspirations being held to threaten national unity…

Can’t see that in Heinlein with the single exception of Starship Trooper. Go back to a book like Beyond This Horizon and you see the resistance to state co-option of individual liberty, that such co-option is the enemy of all definitions of freedom. Go forward to a book like Time Enough For Love and you see the consistent, millennia-long rejection of the state’s right to control anything, including the individual right to die. (Another writer has thus been characterized by a single work, which suggested he was an absolutist and a supporter of despotism, even though the rest of his work–rarely read, never discussed–paints a completely different picture, that of someone seeking to find liberation from the authoritarianism of his day. Who? Machiavelli.)

One might reasonably argue that as time passed, Heinlein came to embody Libertarianism, but that, too, is utterly incompatible with fascism. This charge I think is more due to the modern misunderstanding of the term and its meaning than anything else. We’ve gotten into the unfortunate habit of identifying anyone with a pro-military attitude as a fascist, even while the cause for which such military advocacy may be liberal to its core. Conflating the willingness to fight with the machinery of autocratic tyranny is sloppy thinking at best.

Narcissistic?

That stems from a growing and unfortunate habit in Heinlein’s work to lecture from behind the mask of the characters. And this has merit. But it’s only a valid criticism of the field itself. Science fiction is didactic. One of the chief pleasures for decades was to be told something new, something revolutionary, something outre…at least something that appeared to be those things. Heinlein was a master at this, because, unlike others who tried it, many of his lectures were a pleasure to read. We wanted to agree with some of his characters as they heaped opprobrium on incompetence or provincialism or bigotry or superstition. We wanted them to be right because we sensed they were not fools and we didn’t want to be fools, either. And when he did it right, it was very instructional. As I said at the beginning of this, Heinlein gave lessons in how to think.

More and more as he grew older he did speak from the throne, as it were, and more and more we felt, we sensed, that his main characters–and many of his supporting characters—were stand-ins for him. (The ludicrous cloning arrangement in Time Enough For Love wherein Lazarus gets to, in essence, fuck himself has been the springboard for a Freudian love-fest of armchair analysis on this point.)

Which leads to the last charge. Pedantic?

You bet. And annoyingly so. But rarely did he lecture from utterly irrelevance, and therein lies the problem people often have. His arguments cannot be ignored. This is not to say he wasn’t wrong, but that, Socratically, he knew what the essence of an argument was and how to phrase it in such a way that we have to wrestle with it.

The problem really stems from all those people who grew up reading Heinlein and never seem to have twigged to the idea that they were supposed to disagree with him! If anything must have caused him acid reflux, it was probably knowing that he had, indeed, become a guru, every word worshiped.

But irrelevant? Apparently not. We’re still trying to ignore him. It doesn’t seem we’ve made much progress in that direction.