Under the Influence: Robert A. Heinlein

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     In some ways it seems almost pointless to write this post; what could I possibly write about Robert Anson Heinlein, good or bad, that hasn't been written a thousand times before? Heinlein isn't, like Doc Smith, a forgotten legend; nor is he, like Schmitz, a man who failed to quite get the fame he might have deserved. He is, instead, a titan of the field, one of the few names that dominated the genre for multiple decades and whose fame at least sometimes strayed well outside of the limits of that genre. Reams upon reams have been written about him; a new biography was recently published. He has been both idolized and reviled, both sometimes for good reason.

 

     But what I can write, really, is how I viewed Heinlein's work and how it affected me.

 

     I do happen to know the first Heinlein that I read: Waldo. I know that because it was in Volume 1 of Boucher's landmark anthology A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, and that was one of the first adult SF books I read from my father's fairly extensive collection.

 

     Waldo was a powerful story for me, filled as it was with a number of concepts; the mysterious DeKalb power receptors that malfunctioned without warning, the investigation taking the corporate agent into directions he never expected, and the reclusive genius, Waldo, with his brilliance, tantrums, and inventions (especially the remote manipulators which were named after him). Waldo himself was a sympathetic figure for me, despite recognizing his essential dickishness in his original incarnation, because his problem was an exaggerated parallel to my own fairly serious asthma, something that kept him from interacting with the world in anything like a normal fashion.

 

     After reading Waldo, it was not long – the second volume of A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, in fact – before I read my second Heinlein: The Man Who Sold The Moon. This story of the space program that could have been, run by a single man and a dream, appealed to me even more strongly, as someone who'd had as a birthday present (admittedly along with 1/365th of the population) the first man setting foot on the moon.

 

I immediately started searching the shelves and found that we had a number of books by Mr. Heinlein on the shelves; Heinlein was, in fact, the first adult author whose name I recall memorizing. I think I pretty much read everything we had in the house by him in a couple of weeks, and would grab anything new by him when my parents got it. I read everything that he published (except a couple of obscure short stories) up until his death.

 

Though I did – as I said – read everything he wrote until his death in 1988, I have always been an "early Heinlein" fan. I consider the first signs of his decline to be visible in Stranger in a Strange Land, though he didn't fully slide until after Time Enough for Love (which had some brilliant pieces in it).

 

Heinlein's best work, in my opinion, is to be found in his short story collections and in the "juveniles", the twelve novels he wrote for Scribner's for what would be called the Young Adult market today. The juveniles were especially influential on me as I grew up, in many of the ways that – I think – Heinlein would have wanted them to be.

 

There are common threads running through all of Heinlein's work, and more strongly through the juveniles than any others. These included the fascination with exploration, the optimism for the human race and our ability to somehow overcome even ourselves (while still admitting we are, and will remain, flawed), and – perhaps most importantly – the constant emphasis that the world makes sense and that things that don’t seem to make sense are not signs that the world is nonsensical, but that you haven't thought it through enough. The last is a very strong part of my writing; even in my fantasy novels, magic makes sense if you understand anything about it. Even the mystical follows rules, because if it didn't, it wouldn't be usable. It may not follow the rules of our physics, but it will follow some set of knowable rules.

 

The twelve juveniles, themselves, constitute an amazing achievement. While there are undoubtedly better and lesser works in that group, not one of them is less than "good"; a few of them are astounding. Twelve successive novels, written to demanding and sometimes difficult standards, all of them in my view as good or better than almost anything published in the field before or since; this is a record any author would be proud to own, and it represents just one part of Heinlein's legacy.

 

Obviously this is only my opinion; there are those who don't agree in one way or another. But even the most commonly dismissed, Rocket Ship Galileo (the first one written and published in 1947) was directly inspirational for the image it presented of young people doing science on their own, of sensible parents allowing them to make their own decisions about what to do with their lives, and of a future in which rocketry and low-level spaceflight were so common that one could purchase a rocket that might – just might – be able to be modified to fly to the Moon. By the time I was old enough to think about the concepts seriously, of course, the times had already begun to change; experimenting with high-powered rocket motors in one's backyard was not going to be received well in most neighborhoods in 1975 and beyond.

 

All of the books also emphasized that reading and understanding mathematics and science were key to understanding and living effectively in the world around you. The Rolling Stones have to use orbital tables and calculations to travel safely from one point to another; Kip uses his mathematics to gain an understanding of where he is and what he's dealing with in Have Space Suit, Will Travel; Thorby's extensive and eclectic education in Citizen of the Galaxy serve him in good stead multiple times.

 

I was (and am) inherently lazy intellectually, but I did recognize the need to at least spend some effort understanding key elements of mathematics, science, and related fields. I'll never be a true Heinleinian hero, but I can fake my way through various challenges, ranging from installing an appliance to chopping down a tree safely, and partly that's due to reading, over and over and over again, the importance of a person knowing how to take care of themselves and the people around them.

 

Heinlein placed great emphasis on personal responsibility. At the same time, he also emphasized that membership in a group carried a responsibility towards that group, especially in a social or governmental/military context. It was of course possible for any organization to become corrupt, but the dedication and honor and responsibility of those who made up an organization would protect it from that, as long as they maintained those standards.

 

Heinlein also had heroes which, while competent, could not do everything themselves. Though in later life he seemed to tend toward more "superman" characters, in his juveniles this character type is almost entirely absent. The boys of Rocket Ship Galileo are smart but far from infallible or nearly the equal, in many cases, of the adults they must deal with. Castor and Pollux of The Rolling Stones are admitted geniuses, but they have a serious lack of adult judgment that gets them (and sometimes others) in trouble and this lack of wisdom is a central theme in the novel. William Lerner of Farmer in the Sky is bright but neither a true genius as far as we can tell, nor superior overall in any particular area. The only character in the juveniles who comes close to the stereotype of the super-competent Heinlein hero is, perhaps, Thorby in Citizen of the Galaxy – but only after he has had not only intensive training as a child by an undercover agent but also knocked around the Galaxy in multiple different capacities. And even at the end of the story, there are still a huge number of things he doesn't fully understand.

 

Heinlein's respect for technology and the challenges of space travel drilled these facts into me at an early age; if Boundary and its sequels are any good, give a large chunk of credit to Heinlein, because I certainly had a lot of his work in mind when I was writing them (even though my "spiritual" goal in writing them was an adventure something like Clarke's Rendezvous With Rama).

 

I never got to meet Heinlein; by the time I was really old enough to think about it, he was near the end of his life. But I am grateful to him not just for the marvelous stories he told… but for the help he's given me in knowing how to tell my own stories.

 

Thank you, Robert Anson Heinlein.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Your background with Heinlein is similar to mine. The older I get the less I like the stuff written after 1960. To me, the 1950s was Heinlein’s decade as a writer. I think he peaked with Have Space Suit-Will Travel. I still reread that book every few years, along with all the other juveniles, and books like The Door Into Summer, and the various short story collections.

  2. ‘Between Planets’ is the 2nd sf book I ever read. [‘Catseye’ by Norton was the 1st.] I was 10 … ^_^ … and both were truly excellent books that hooked me on the genre. Seeing Heinlein’s name, my dad gave me one of his ‘old books’ – ‘The Puppet Masters’, to see if I’d like it. I did. The next week, I picked up ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ [and ‘Zero Minus X’] – and I enjoyed both of those too. My dad read ‘Stranger’ … and asked if I had any questions about it. Being a naive 10 year old, for some reason the sex -completely- did not register on my consciousness, but it -did- inspire lots of questions about religion. ^_^ … when I reread ‘Stranger’ at 19 I was astonished to note what I had earlier been oblivious to.
    I’ve heard complaints that Heinlein wrote male-directed sf, but I never felt excluded. His main characters were just as accessible to [female] me as they would have been were they written to be female – and mcu of what he wrote was just darned good.

  3. Bounced over from LJ because I had to hear what you had to say…our experiences with Heinlein weren’t exactly the same…my first Heinlein was ‘Podkayne of Mars’ and I was hooked. I like his later stuff (SiaSL is a touchstone for me) but I like his juveniles too…and “The Man Who Sold the Moon” and “Requiem” are as powerful a pair of pieces of writing as I have ever read. He is why I am a supporter of the space program and why I cheer for Bezos and Diamandis and Branson. I’m not a Heinlein hero/ine, but I wish I was. He taught me many of the beliefs I still believe to this day. btw *hug*

Your comments or questions welcomed!