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ROBERT A[NSON] HEINLEIN (1907–88)
US novelist and short-story writer.
“Arguably the most important figure – because of both his pivotal popular successes and his aesthetic innovations – in the modern history of the genre, Robert A. Heinlein produced 12 collections of short fiction and 32 novels; posthumous publications have included essays, letters, unexpurgated editions of some novels, and his unpublished first novel, For Us, the Living: a comedy of customs (2004), written in 1939.”
“Heinlein was first and foremost an entertaining storyteller. Common wisdom divides his career into two, three, or perhaps even four distinct phases. Insofar as he wrote different kinds of fiction, his work divides into four overlapping stages. Although he never stopped writing short fiction, the first phase was primarily comprised of short stories, most of them following common pulp formulas and published, sometimes pseudonymously, in genre magazines, principally John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction (1937–71). While many were gadget tales or boys’ adventures built around an engineer paradigm, most were what Heinlein called “human interest stories,” especially those written after the Second World War, when he sold pieces to “slick” magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post (1921–69), printed on high-quality paper and read outside genre conventions. Many stories of this period contributed to his “Future History,” an ambitious attempt to create an interlocking series that provided one unified conception of the future stages of human history.”
“Starting in 1947 with Rocket Ship Galileo and continuing through the early 1960s, Heinlein published “juveniles,” adventure novels for what now are called “young adults.” All were broadly optimistic concerning how science, technology, and engineering would transform human life in important, positive, even surprising ways. Like the stories, these books understood sf along the lines sketched out by Hugo Gernsback and Campbell: they should not only be original but also teach scientific and mathematical rigor, dramatizing these in ways that might excite a fourteen-year-old boy; their heroes reason scientifically, and their enemies illustrate the ignorant prejudices of rigid traditions rather than enlightened rationality. All present space travel in desirably realistic terms. The juveniles were modestly successful and over the past 50 years most have remained in print. While Heinlein certainly did not invent sf for young adults, he did vest it with a level of intellectual sophistication and literary intelligence that has deeply influenced writers since. In an essay drafted in 1957, Heinlein remarked that an adequate definition of sf might be “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of scientific method” (Heinlein 1959: 22). These are the most common traits of his work – at least until the final period.”
“Alongside his work for adults, these juveniles continued until the publisher rejected the thirteenth – the militaristic anti-communist allegory Starship Troopers (1959) – as too violent and too adult for young readers. Although he would publish two further juveniles, this marked the beginning of what is generally thought Heinlein’s third or “mature” phase, and identifies the one major change in his aesthetic strategy (see James and Patterson 2006). Before Starship Troopers, Heinlein generally perfected strategies inherited from others; after, he generally invented new forms and directions. Virtually all of these books sparked controversies, since they foregrounded heterodox political and social theorizing, often amid shocking violence or violations of bourgeois taboos. Starship Troopers was both denounced as fascist fantasy and praised as the morally sound realization of the American tradition of duty and self-sacrifice. Except for its messianic main character, a human brought upby Martians, the satirical fantasy Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; unexpurgated 1990) contains no overt sf elements. Instead, its social commentary and quirky iconoclasm preach the pleasures of communal living, free love, and anarchic individualism – and precipitate a cascade of contradictions about contemporary alienation (see Franklin 1980: 136–42). Sometimes called the most controversial sf novel ever written, Farnham’s Freehold (magazine serialization and book 1964) is a survivalist’s postapocalyptic nightmare of race war, cannibalism, and the consequences, both good and bad, of “rugged individualism.” The last important work of this phase is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (magazine serialization 1965–66, book 1966), a vividly entertaining re-enactment of the American revolution but an equally harsh indictment of mob democracy, bureaucratic government, and American economic policy.'”
“A final phase began with I Will Fear No Evil (1970), followed by Time Enough for Love (1973) and Job: a comedy of justice (1984). These and other titles returned to the Future History but also developed several “world-as-myth” stories, with characters moving between the parallel worlds of other writers’ fictional universes. With the partial exception of Friday (1982), these books are marked and frequently marred by the sort of “tedious sociological sermonizing” (Heinlein 1969: 37) Heinlein had earlier disparaged. They are increasingly self-indulgent, bloated by cantankerous didacta, and finally solipsistic. They “are also, paradoxically, … the largest selling segment of Heinlein’s oeuvre” (James and Patterson 2006: 14).”
“The late decay of his talents, perhaps precipitated by a sharp decline in his health, is neither unprecedented nor unexpected; very few writers have continually produced valuable work across a period as long as 48 years. However, his influence and importance remain undeniable, and perhaps cannot be overstated, especially his effect on mid-twentieth-century anglophone sf. Most significantly, he is the writer most responsible for the literary forms – the underlying generic grammar – of modern sf: “Later writers and readers have internalized that grammar, that set of rules that generates a particular kind of science fiction story, which is still probably the central kind of science fiction story” (Brown et al. 2007: 51b).”
“Three features identify that aesthetic architecture. First is the “naturalness” of Heinlein’s imaginative contrivances. Following another of Campbell’s lessons, Heinlein excelled at constructing narrative worlds that felt “lived-in”; stylistically, this effect comes from crafting a narrative voice that achieves a comfortable intimacy with readers, who are configured as fellow travelers and participants rather than passive consumers or voyeurs. In this sense, Heinlein assumes a familiarity with the created world’s subtle differences, which produces two key effects: first, he is able to avoid the expository “infodumps” that so frequently bloat sf and awkwardly subvert the narrative momentum; second, readers experience a far more uncanny sense of wonder than in fiction where they remain an outsider merely gawking from afar at the extraordinary changes. A famous example of this latter effect concerns the door that “dilates” in Beyond this Horizon (magazine serialization 1942, book 1948). Rather than belaboring the point that a future society’s technology differs in minute and pervasive ways, Heinlein simply embeds the difference as a quotidian fact, allowing us to experience it and so estrange us cognitively – this is both wonderfully economical expression and the essential sense of wonder that specifically characterizes sf.”
“Second, instead of making characters solely the vehicles for the transmission of some scientific datum, the stories were based on the characters’ feelings and thoughts as they encountered novel conditions and future changes. His commitment to the human-interest story can be seen in “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction” (1947) and in his preference for the word “speculative,” which does not dismiss science so much as subordinate it to human problems (Heinlein 1964: 17). Such character-driven fiction more closely aligns with so-called “mainstream” literary fiction, but Heinlein never abandoned the genre’s dedication to exploring science and technology. Assuming a world and focusing on human experience allowed Heinlein to sinuously integrate the “hard” natural sciences of physics, mathematics, and space engineering with the “soft” social sciences of political theory, sociology, and economics.”
“A third feature concerned literary style. Heinlein’s prose was uncluttered and economical, carefully balanced and highly adept at elegant transitions between the technical vocabularies of science and the casual idioms of common American speech, both making complexities accessible and presenting them in a richer, more literary prose than had been common among genre writers. Neither Isaac Asimov nor Arthur C. Clarke was ever as stylistically proficient, neither ever wove together the natural and social sciences with the same seamless simplicity, and neither ever experimented so with generic convention.”
“Although justly lauded for inventing the grammar of modern sf, Heinlein’s dominance is frequently lamented, even derided. Concerning that influence, Samuel R. Delany once echoed André Gide’s quip about the poet Victor Hugo. Who is the greatest sf writer of the twentieth century? “Robert Heinlein, alas” (Delany 1977: 149). Delany neatly captures the sense of ambivalence or disappointment that sometimes seems Heinlein’s legacy. With the exception of some of the final books, the brilliance of his achievement is undeniable, but the positions he took remain very controversial.”
“Yet discussions of Heinlein too often neatly divide into cultish hagiography or contemptuous dismissal. In my view there are as many things to disparage as to admire, but also as many to admire as to disparage. To paraphrase Thomas M. Disch, no one so engages yet enrages the liberal imagination as Heinlein. The sharp wit, bold power, and eccentric iconoclasm of his views liberate; though the didacta, delivered so often by a seemingly omniscient man, actually subordinate in subtle, powerful ways.”
“Almost all of the ideological interpretive controversies concern the difference between what the fictions explicitly say and what they implicitly confirm. It might appear hard to reconcile the explicit positions that many of the novels take, but implicitly the fiction is a coherent, unified whole. Explicitly, many characters and texts seem radically distinct. For example, the government in Starship Troopers is a sort of fascist dictatorship, one that is always right and functions flawlessly, while in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress the political position advocated is “rational anarchism,” an extreme form of libertarianism that postulates all governments as hopelessly inefficient and suggests that only the single self, or the nuclear family, can be trusted. In the former novel, bureaucracy is our friend, in the latter it is our enemy. So – explicitly – the two novels have no unified view.”
“But all of Heinlein’s work seems unified by its implicit features. In addition to the aesthetic architecture mentioned above, the fiction privileges a conception of maximal individual liberty and personal freedom; meritocracy dominated by accomplished elites; a critique of complacent acceptance of the status quo, chiefly its mores and myths; a belief in human progress brought about through science, technology, and particularly space travel; a commitment to mid-century Midwestern conceptions of personal honor, civic duty, and public courtesy; but all ultimately subordinated to the authority of a single great man, a benevolent intellectual hero who is not afraid to act, violently if need be, to shape history for the good of all.”
“Whatever one’s conclusion concerning his politics, Heinlein’s prominence and importance cannot be questioned, nor should they be forgotten. His influence was immediate, authentically profound, and lasting. No one can claim to know twentieth-century sf without a close encounter with Robert A. Heinlein.”
Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear, Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, Octavia Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, Frank Herbert, L. Ron Hubbard, Ursula K. Le Guin, C.L. Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson, Joanna Russ, Neal Stephenson, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr, and Gene Wolfe
- Brown, C., Beamer, A., Clute, J., Sleight, G., and Wolfe, G.K. (2007) “Heinlein at 100: roundtable discussion with Charles Brown, Amelia Beamer, John Clute, Graham Sleight, and Gary K. Wolfe,” Locus, August: 51–54.
- Delany, S.R. (1977) The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: notes on the language of science fiction, Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press.
- Franklin, H.B. (1980) Robert A. Heinlein: America as science fiction, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Heinlein, R.A. (1959) “Science Fiction: its nature, faults and virtues,” in B. Davenport (ed.) The Science Fiction Novel: imagination and social criticism, Chicago: Advent.
- (1964) “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction,” in L.A. Eshbach (ed.) Of Worlds beyond: the science of science fiction writing, Chicago: Advent.
- James, R. and Patterson Jr, W.H. (2006) “Re-visioning Robert Heinlein’s Career,” Foundation, 97: 11–27.
- Panshin, A. (1968) Heinlein in Dimension: a critical analysis, Chicago: Advent.
- Patterson Jr, W.H. (n.d.) “Robert A. Heinlein – a biography,” The Heinlein Society webpage. Online. Available: http://www.heinleinsociety.org/rah/biographies.html (accessed 1 January 2009).
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