distal muse

observations, opinions, ephemera, and views


September 09, 2010

Robert A. Heinlein: Grand Master

I finished reading William H. Patterson’s large new biography of Robert A. Heinlein yesterday.  I knew I wanted to write something about it, but I gave it a day to simmer.  Frankly, I’m still not sure what to say other than I was positively impressed.

Basically, Patterson achieved the remarkable goal of demythologizing the man without gutting him.

I’ve read any number of biographies of famous (and infamous) personalities which tended either to be hagiographic (and therefore virtually useless as any kind of honest reference) or a brutal airing of personal failings in some sort of attempt to drag the subject down to “our level” and resulting in a catalogue of reasons to think ill of the person under study.  (This is one reason I tend to urge people that if they like an artist’s work, read it all if possible, see it all, listen to it all before finding out about them as human beings.  Too often the person, depending on the book, spoils the work for many.)

Patterson has done something useful for aspiring science fiction writers.  (Hell, for any kind of writer as far as that goes.)  Heinlein’s reputation casts a long, dark shadow across the field.  He is one of the pantheon of timeless Greats and in many ways the most intimidating of the lot.  It is, I think, useful to know that he had just as much trouble getting started—and staying started—as any other decent writer.  (Harlan Ellison has observed that the hard part is not becoming a writer but staying a writer, that anyone basically can get lucky at the beginning, but over time the work simply has to stand up for itself.)

The legend has been repeated ad nauseum, how Heinlein saw an ad for a short story contest, wrote a story, then decided to send it to Astounding instead of the contest because Campbell paid better, and it sold.  That story was Life Line.  From there, up was the only direction Heinlein went.

The reality is much more as one might expect.  True, he sold that first story to Campbell and sold more, but not without rejections getting in there and Campbell making him rewrite some of the pieces and not without a lot of wrestling with reputation and deadlines.  Writing is hard damn work and this book shows what Heinlein had to go through.  Yes, he was better than most, but he wasn’t teflon.  And he had to learn, just like any of us.

Reading about time spent living in a four-by-seven foot trailer on $4.00 a day while he sweated a new story makes him suddenly very human.

But also very admirable.

The other problem with Heinlein is that he did codifying work.  There were time travel stories, generation ship stories, alien invasion stories, and so on and so forth before him, but he wrote a number of stories—all lengths—that more or less set the standard for how those stories should be done.  He wrote “defining” stories, and for a long time people gauged their work and the work of others by that gold standard.

One gets tired of having such a bar hanging over one’s head all the time and naturally a reaction emerged over time that was as nasty as it was inevitable, casting Heinlein as the writer to work in opposition to.

By the time I discovered Heinlein, during my own golden age at 11, 12, and 13, he was already being touted as “the Dean of Space Age fiction.”  In my reading he was up there with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, the other two giants.  It was as if he had come right out of the box that way, never having been anything else, never having had to climb up any ladder of success, never, seemingly, having had to learn anything.  One of those people who simply appeared, complete and omnicompetent, already polished and important.

And for a long time I didn’t like him.

Which was odd, because years later I noticed that I had read more novels by Robert A. Heinlein than any other SF writer.  By choice, obviously, since no one was making me do that.

The reason for the dislike was bound up with the actual process of reading one of his books.  Later, I was happy to recall the story, the characters, the message, but while reading it—and being unable to put it down, whatever it was—I disliked it intensely.  I realized finally it was because, unlike so many others, he made me think.  He had a gift for portraying the process of figuring things out and would take you through it, and make you question assumptions.  It was work to read one his books, but it was also work I couldn’t seem to get out of.

Later in life I was very grateful for that.

Past the legend and the success, though, came the controversy.  He broke ground, tilted at windmills, said things that shook people up.  Sometimes the people he made uncomfortable were those you thought should be uncomfortable, you agreed with him, and it was delight to see them lampooned so effectively.  But other times he made you uncomfortable and that wasn’t so much fun.

Sometimes he fell flat on his face.  (I wonder how many other novels by such popular writers are so universally derided as I Will Fear No Evil.)  But the impact of the fall was proportional to the chance he took with the work.  The trajectory was pretty damn high.  When he missed the impact would leave a big crater.

By the time I was beginning to try my own hand at writing SF Heinlein had become the Great Target.  Just about any group in SF that had a grudge or an axe to grind could take aim at Heinlein and bitch about his politics, his solipsism, his sexism, his pedantry, his arrogance.  And while I could see where many of these arguments were coming from and where they were going, I always thought they missed a big point.  There wouldn’t be many of these arguments if he hadn’t opened the field for the debate.

Maybe that’s crediting him with more influence than he deserves.  It’s still difficult to judge.  But people still get worked up to a froth over Starship Troopers and its presumed fascism or Time Enough For Love and its self-indulgent solipsism or The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and its political demagogy or…

To put it in perspective for myself, Heinlein was the first author I read who made me question gender inequality.  I never read his women as subservient to anyone.  They were all, to my mind, their own people, fully realized, and free.  He was the first author I read that pointed out clearly that political cant is a disease of all political ideologies, left, right, or center, and that they should all be mistrusted.  He was the first author I read to make it clear that ethics and morality, personal loyalty, and conscience are stateless and should transcend parochialism and provincialism.

Later, in discussion with people who took a less generous view of the man and his work, I could see and acknowledge that he had failed to support his own theses quite often and occasionally seemed to work against his stated ideals.  Fine.  He told stories.  Sometimes characters take over (actually quite often) and do things on their own.  Sometimes a conscious set of ideals have to work against in-grown proclivities.  Everybody has to work hard to transcend personal prejudice.  And Heinlein showed that, too.

Was Robert A. Heinlein the greatest SF writer ever?  No, I don’t think so.  But then, there’s no such thing as “The Greatest” anything.  He was one of the very best.  Was he even the most important?  Well, taking the Beatles argument, a case could be made—that argument being that while the Beatles were not in any single way the best band ever, what they did opened the field and sort of gave permission for others, who were often much better, to do what they did.  Heinlein fits that description and fits it handily.  So what if some of his work is dated or quaint or embarrassing archaic?

Reading Patterson’s book restores context and without that it is difficult at best to make an honest judgment of anyone.  Against the times in which Heinlein lived and what happened to him during the course of a life lived according to a different set of cultural expectations than ours, we see just how extraordinary much of Heinlein’s work truly was.  He ceases to be a relic, a holy icon, and becomes a talented, intelligent writer who did some damned good things.  Flawed, occasionally incomprehensible and from time to time a bit intolerant, the man emerges from the shadow of the legacy and the legacy itself becomes more relevant, because it begins to make a larger sense.

This volume only takes us up to 1948.  The year he married his third wife, the one who became almost as legendary as he was, two years before the film he worked on that set a standard for “realistic” science fiction in cinema, before the decade that saw his rise to an enviable prominence within SF and even in the larger reading world.  Patterson has done a remarkable job of telling a coherent story comprised of a dizzying array of facts.  A handful of writers at the time more or less made science fiction—Asimov, Clarke, de Camp, Sturgeon, Van Vogt, and Heinlein.  Heinlein remains the most controversial.  This book goes a long way toward explaining why.

I can’t wait for volume two.

3 thoughts on “Robert A. Heinlein: Grand Master

  1. Hello

    This is Bill Patterson sister Dianna .
    Thank you for your remarks.

  2. Your review, very simply, made me want to buy the book. I think I will.

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