Robert Heinlein at 100

How the science fiction master created the template for our looser, hipper, more pluralist world.

The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein's 100th birthday is July 7. Despite his visions of near-immortals and cryogenic sleep, he didn't live to see it. He died in 1988, mourned by millions of readers who saw him more as a father or a guru than merely as a spinner of captivating tales.

Fans plan to celebrate his centennial at a conference in Kansas City, near Heinlein's birthplace, in July. Among those who will be paying him homage are Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk on the moon) and Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), whose past includes stints as both a hippie folksinger and a Reagan speechwriter.

That pair of devotees says something about the range of Heinlein's influence. His influence on science fiction almost goes without saying; when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America chose their field's first Grand Master, Heinlein was the easy choice. But Heinlein was bigger than his literary genre. Following him could lead you to seemingly contradictory places, from the military to a free-love commune.

Heinlein venerated the armed forces, most notoriously in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which celebrated an elite military order. Just two years later, he was publishing the counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land, with its simultaneously beatific, sexy, and heroic vision of Martian-inspired communal living. A rich mix of bohemian and straight-arrow values, Heinlein's unique take on American individualism made him the bridge between such disparate '60s icons as Barry Goldwater and Charles Manson.

Heinlein's novels and short stories reflected the rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message associated with Goldwater and the conservative movement he sparked. At the same time, his writings exuded the communal desire to live in blissful togetherness, ignoring the repressive sexual and religious mores of bourgeois America. With a libertarian vision that appealed to individualists of both the left and the right, Heinlein not only set the template for the American 1960s but helped create the looser, hipper, more pluralist world of the decades since.

Whether we're looking at post-Star Wars pop culture, post-Reagan politics, or the day-to-day tenor of our own lives in the Internet age, it's easy to see that while more literary novelists such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow enjoy high-flying critical reputations, it's Heinlein's fingerprints that mark the modern world.

Heinlein the Soldier
Heinlein was born in 1907 in Butler, Missouri, the son of a farm equipment salesman. Family connections with the Pendergast political machine in Kansas City won him an appointment to Annapolis. He identified proudly with the Navy for the rest of his life, although he was retired in 1934 because of tuberculosis, just five years into his active service.

Heinlein sold his first S.F. story in 1939 and almost instantly became the acknowledged king of his field, under the tutelage of legendary Astounding editor John Campbell. In the Campbell era, with Heinlein leading the way, the S.F. magazines moved from didactic travelogues and amateurish intergalactic epics to intelligent treatments of politics, religion, and sociology. Heinlein was also the first S.F. writer to break into respectable "slick" fiction magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post after World War II, and he spearheaded the first sober space travel movie, Destination Moon (1950), in which private enterprise-beating back objections from early advocates of a sort of "precautionary principle," who feared it was to unsafe even to try-makes it to the moon.

Most important, from 1947 to 1958 Heinlein wrote a series of S.F. novels for boys, published by Scribner's, that seemed to make it into every high school and elementary school library. From book to book their scope widened, starting with plucky, capable boys making a simple moon flight (Rocket Ship Galileo) and progressing across the solar system, presenting young men fighting revolutions on Venus (Between Planets), farming on Ganymede (Farmer in the Sky), navigating interstellar starships (Starman Jones), and finally defending the human race before an alien tribunal (Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

These coming-of-age adventure tales imagined an anti-xenophobic world in which aliens were lovable, inscrutable, and often wiser than men-although, for all that, occasionally dangerous. Those books lie close to the heart of almost everyone who went on to love or write science fiction, or to work to make its space travel dreams come true.

As the 1950s ended, Heinlein wrote a final boys' novel, Starship Troopers. Scribner's rejected it, finding it inappropriate for its intended youth market. It tells the story of a young man who finds his place in the world by joining the Mobile Infantry, going through the travails of training, and eventually fighting a war against sinister, implacable alien bugs whose ant-like lack of individuality was an unmistakable metaphor for communism.

Troopers was published in 1959, just before Barry Goldwater made his first big national splash with his 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative. Goldwater's appeal had two things in common with Heinlein's: an individualist sense that Americans were being overmanaged and overpampered by an out-of-control federal government, and a belief that those rotten commies needed to get it, good and hard.

Heinlein was influenced by the same Cold War realities that inspired Goldwater. Even in the 1930s, during his brief involvement with Upton Sinclair's left-wing End Poverty in California movement, Heinlein had always been a staunch individualist (and somewhat of an elitist). His novels were peopled by super-competent men and women struggling against repressive governments and hidebound bureaucracies, not to mention more literal threats to their individuality, such as brain-controlling slugs from Saturn's moon Titan (in his 1951 Red Scare metaphor The Puppet Masters).

The struggle part was key to Heinlein's thought. In the 1950s, he viewed Soviet communism as a threat to individualism that needed to be combated by nearly any means necessary. (A draft, which he regarded as slavery under any circumstances, was not one of them.) One of his central ideas, repeated over and over again, was that man is the most dangerous beast in the universe. Thus, he saw no probable peaceful end to the Cold War. Preparing for a nuclear war he saw as bordering on inevitable was, he believed, an American's prime duty. In 1958 he bought newspaper ads calling for the formation of "Patrick Henry Leagues" to push this idea. (Among other things, the ads stated that "higher taxes" were a price worth paying to beat the Soviets.)

The novel that arose from this sense of mission, Starship Troopers, strikes many readers as overly militaristic, bordering on fascist. The S.F. writer and Nation critic Thomas Disch wrote that the book caused "so many of [Heinlein's] critics" to pin a "totalitarian" label on him. (Disch kindly said that "authoritarian" is more apt.) Troopers posited that a ruthless military was an inescapable aspect of human civilization, and it presented approvingly a society in which only veterans of public service could vote.

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