restricted access What is One to Make of Robert A. Heinlein?
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What is One to Make of Robert A. Heinlein?

The paradoxes involved in the literary career of this science fiction writer have been much remarked upon, for the simple fact that they are remarkable. A former member (albeit briefly) of the John Birch Society, Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land served as a philosophical bible for the "flower children" of the late 1960s. A one-time naval officer who advocated, in Starship Troopers (1959), limiting the franchise to service veterans, his mid-Sixties novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has been used as a recruiting tract for the antigovernment, antimilitary Libertarian Party. Heinlein is, in fact, the author of the Libertarian battle cry TANSTAAFL! ("There ain't no such thing as a free lunch").

The seeming contradictions continue. A "commercial" writer who boasts of writing for "the money," Heinlein is sf's most persistent pusher of messages. A nonliterary sort, he is the possessor of a style that is both effective and unmistakable. Fastidious about and practically oblivious to sexuality while a young man, Heinlein has grown increasingly explicit in his work the older he has gotten. Among his recent fiction, Friday (New York: Holt, 1982) is, in this regard (and in many others), the most advanced yet. In Friday the protagonist seems to spend a phenomenal amount of time in bed with a variety of men and women—an accomplishment [End Page 127] in itself as the main character is not, legally at least, a human being.

What is it with Heinlein? Is he some sort of literary chameleon, changing ideas, creeds, mores from work to work as he seeks a philosophic New Jerusalem? Alas, this explanation is too neat, and is far, far from correct.

Heinlein's basic beliefs have not changed a wit from the late 1930s, when he first started writing for the pulp magazines. Then as now, Heinlein has championed the individual over the group; the rational over the mystical and religious; action, intellect, and instinct over complacency, defeatism, and self-absorption. If the tone of Heinlein's stories has varied, it is because we have changed. Heinlein's fictions are mirrors of our own metamorphosis.

Heinlein's works have fallen into three basic periods. During the 1940s, Heinlein emerged as the premier scribbler for the science fiction magazines. Possessing a vast knowledge of science, military affairs, and politics, Heinlein wrote stories that shimmered gemlike amid the vast mass of middling, amateurish tales that choked the pulp sf journals. Heinlein's influence was enormous; dozens of young writers strove to imitate his style, and editors refashioned their publications to reflect the new sense of sophistication Heinlein and a few others were bringing to the field. Some measure of Heinlein's success may be gauged when one contemplates that virtually everything he wrote during this decade is still in print and continues to sell.

As the Fifties rolled around, Heinlein cast about for new worlds to conquer. Apparently deciding that the markets in magazines such as Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction were too limited—and too low paying—for a man of his talents, Heinlein started submitting his tales, successfully, to the leading magazines. He also broke into the lucrative juvenile field, publishing with Scribner's a series of well-crafted novels that continue to attract readers both young and old. As the Fifties ended, Heinlein has attained that estate much-dreamed of, and seldom achieved, by virtually every writer: his works were read, appreciated, and influential, his style imitated and admired, and his bills paid. Then things began to change.

During the 1960s, Heinlein's works began to grow both longer and longer winded. Political and social criticism came to dominate the stories, while Heinlein's fictional worlds increasingly came to serve as papier-mâché backdrops for lectures concerning the author's controversial views. Some of the books, though flawed, had moments of brilliance (Stranger and Moon), others, like the later works of H. G. Wells, another sf author with very different ideas, seemed interminable. Heinlein's career reached its nadir a few years ago when he was booed while giving a Guest of Honor...


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