His devotees range from freaked-out astrologers to coolly rational astronomers; from Goldwater-country conservatives to Greenwich Village anarchists; from atheists such as Madalyn Murray O'Hair to members of the Church of All Worlds who proclaim him a prophet and his novel, Stranger In A Strange Land, a holy book.
Robert Heinlein's appeal knows no generation gap, spanning from his first story published in 1939 to his most recent bestseller, Time Enough For Love. Though he has written both novels aimed at adults and those for children, you'd be just as likely to find a doctoral candidate re-reading one of his "juveniles" as you would to see a fifth-grader tackling one of his more advanced books for the first time. But as paradoxical as the sheer spectrum of readers he attracts is the man himself.
The unparalleled author of over 35 volumes of science fiction and adult fantasy, Robert Anson Heinlein is a fiery intellectual who feels as much at home with an anecdote as a syllogism. An indomitable individualist, he still believes the racial survival of humanity must be regarded as being of final importance. A devastating satirist of human society and government, he nonetheless prefers to keep silent about current politics.
His approach to life and literature is that of the field scientist: making observations and forming hypotheses. With this approach, combined with a style that invites the reader to draw up an asteroid and set a spell, Heinlein has influenced the development of modern science fiction more than any writer since H.G. Wells.
The most telling witness to his yarn-spinning abilities is that every book he's authored is still in print—this including stories that predict events now contradicted by reality. Even when his predictions have been dead wrong, when three decades of progress have turned what was thought to be hard scientific possibility into the improbabilities of fantasy, his stories still maintain a necessary ring of authenticity.
This shouldn't suggest that his ability to forecast the future has been any less than amazingly prophetic at times, though Heinlein stresses that prophecy as such is not the aim of science fiction. Nevertheless, in his 1941 novel, Methuselah's Children, he predicted a socially-disoriented 1969 with such startling newspaper headlines as, "LOS ANGELES HIGH SCHOOL MOB DEFIES SCHOOL BOARD" and "SUICIDE RATE UP NINTH SUCCESSIVE YEAR." Heinlein comments that nowadays such headlines don't even seem odd. His detailed description of the lunar surface in his 1947 juvenile novel, Rocket Ship Galileo, was accurate down even to the moon dust—and no one then knew whether moon dust even existed, or viewed it close up until the flight of Apollo 11 22 years later.
Much of his prophecy, however, has been of the self-fulfilling type. His fictional word "grok," used in Stranger In A Strange Land as a verb for total empathetic understanding, has been elevated to common usage. In his 1942 story, "Waldo," mechanical hands called waldoes were invented by the title character; when shortly thereafter such hands were actually developed to cope with highly radioactive materials, they were appropriately dubbed waldoes after those in the story. Heinlein designed a waterbed as far back as the 1930's but couldn't afford to build it then; he started using waterbeds in his fiction and now owns one sent to him as a compliment by the first man to manufacture them: he had gotten the idea from Stranger In A Strange Land.
But if writing prophecy is not Robert Heinlein's main intention, then what is?
"As far as I'm concerned," Heinlein told this writer, "fiction is intended to entertain. If I can manage to entertain with it, that's what the cash customer is paying for. So I don't hesitate to write straight science fiction, straight fantasy, or a mixture of the two—or anything else."
What is science fiction, and how does it differ from fantasy?
"As you know, everybody takes a whack at that every now and then," said Heinlein. "Science fiction is, to my mind, based on the real world: extrapolation from the real world, speculation that takes place—usually into the future—about the real world, and which takes science as a necessary aspect of the story that you're writing—meaning if you left the science out the story would fall to pieces. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a fairy-tale for grown-ups. It is not based on the real world. This is no criticism of fantasy, I'm not opposed to it at all…I wrote both science fiction and fantasy and I sometimes mix them up in the same story in a way that purists do not like…but sometimes you can tell a good story that way."
"I prefer the term 'speculative fiction,'" Heinlein continued, "because there isn't anything about that term which ties me down to putting a lot of atomic physics and such into a story. It's a looser term—more elbow room. Speculation about the future, but serious speculation."
With speculations in mind, does Heinlein believe travel through time is possible, or is it merely a fictional device?
"There is no basis for belief or nonbelief in this question. We don't have any data from which to work. There is at present no satisfactory theory of time. We haven't the slightest idea of how you might get your teeth into the fabric of time—whatever it is. Time travel, as of now, comes under the head of fantasy, inasmuch as it requires one to postulate something about which we know nothing…But it makes an excellent device for telling stories, particularly stories that speculate about the condition of mankind and his future." Heinlein cited as classic examples of this type of story Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court and H.G. Wells' Time Machine.
Does Heinlein think any of the Unidentified Flying Objects have been actual contacts with beings from outer space?
"I don't know," he answered. "I simply don't have data. There have been some UFO sightings that are extremely hard to explain. I'm reminded of something Willy Ley said to me, oh, 20, 25 years ago. He said, 'Vun. Dere is someting dere. Two. I do not know vat it iss.' I'm just about where Willy Ley put it then: there is something there and I do not know what it is."
In response to related questions, Heinlein added, "There have been lots of other writers who have always talked as if just as soon as we got in touch with really intelligent, highly advanced races, we will find them to be peaceful vegetarians. Well, I don't think that is necessarily true at all. There's no data on which to base that; it is simply wishful thinking on the part of the writers who write that way. The universe might turn out to be a hell of a sight nastier and tougher place than we have any reason to guess at this point. That first contact just might wipe out the human race, because we would encounter somebody who was meaner and tougher, and not at all inclined to be bothered by genocide. Be no more bothered by genocide than I am when I put out ant poison in the kitchen when the ants start swarming in."
Nonetheless Heinlein is definitely not preaching defeatism. "We got this way—we got where we are—over the course of a long stretch of evolution, by being survivor-types in a very tough jungle. And from all I've seen of the human race so far, they're still that: mean, tough, and nasty. I do not mean that as a derogatory remark, either; I think that's what it takes to survive. That doesn't mean you have to be mean, tough, and nasty in your daily behavior. In other words, I am not a pacifist, and I do not think the human animal is put together so he can be a pacifist and still survive."
DON'T TREAD ON ME
Heinlein's views on government and individual freedom?
"I would say my position is not too far from that of Ayn Rand's: that I would like to see government reduced to no more than internal police and courts, external armed forces—with the other matters handled otherwise. I'm sick of the way the government sticks its nose into everything, now…It seems to me that every time we manage to establish one freedom, they take another away. Maybe two."
But Robert Heinlein, being from Missouri, is careful not to represent any opinion as the final solution to any question. "I got over looking for final solutions," he explained, "a good, long time ago because once you get this point shored up, something breaks out somewhere else. The human race gets along by the skin of its teeth, and it's been doing so for some hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Human solutions are never final solutions, at least so far as the history of the race up to now indicates.
"When I was a kid we had the 'War to End All Wars'—going to make the world 'safe for democracy.' Now look at the damn thing…We thought we had all the problems of our economy solved except the problems of distribution…and now we suddenly discover that we're in a closed spaceship, a goldfish bowl, and if we don't get a balanced aquarium we're going to poison ourselves with our own poisons. It is the common human condition all through history that every time you solve a problem you discover that you've also created a new problem."
Intellectual sure-footedness in the midst of an ever-changing universe is a prime requisite for sanity, and perhaps it is this quality that has earned Robert Heinlein so many devoted readers. Perhaps, however, his popularity can equally be traced to each of his stories being based on a postulate appealing to a different type of reader—though a substantial number of worshipful Heinlein fans have read all his published books. While Heinlein's stories have the nasty habit of being as difficult to label as Heinlein himself, some indications may be given as to which of his books appeals to what kind of reader.
His early stories (1939 to approx. 1950) might best be called "straight" science fiction or fantasy—depending on the particular story. Much of his science fiction during this period was included in what editors and publishers called his "Future History" series, though each story is complete unto itself. These include such titles as The Man Who Sold The Moon, The Green Hills of Earth, Revolt in 2100, and Methuselah's Children. This last is particularly interesting as its main character, Lazarus Long, is also the protagonist of his latest novel, Time Enough For Love. Other of his science fiction novels worth noting from this period are Orphans of the Sky (tangentially part of the "Future History") and Beyond This Horizon, in which Heinlein deals directly with the question of "final answers." For some of his best fantasy from this period, see his two-in-one volume, Waldo & Magic, Inc.
Chronologically overlapping somewhat would be the dozen or so "juvenile" novels Heinlein wrote from about 1947 to 1958, though the juvenile categorization has much more to do with publishing industry traditions regarding youthful protagonists in fiction than literary treatment; most of Heinlein's novels so called are in no way juvenile. Among this writer's favorites are Citizen of the Galaxy, Have Space Suit—Will Travel, and Between Planets, with the rest just a short step behind. Favorite "adult" novels from this period include The Puppet Masters, Double Star, and his time-travel novel, The Door Into Summer.
Starting with 1959 and Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein's fiction has become ever more controversial with devotees sharply polarized in their favorites. Any attempt to pigeonhole novels of this period ends in chaos.
Stranger In A Strange Land (1961) awoke slowly to become an underground bestseller—must reading in college literary courses and communes—and remains one of Heinlein's all-time bestsellers. Glory Road is his 1963 science fantasy novel about a Vietnam veteran who meets a beautiful woman on l'lle du Levant and finds himself defending her in sword-and-sorcery combat. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) is regarded by some to be Heinlein's all-around best novel. It tells of the fight of a 21st century lunar colony to gain its political independence from earth; its anti-authoritarian overtones have won it wide popularity among libertarians and classical liberals.
Both I Will Fear No Evil (1970) and Time Enough For Love (1973) represent a shift in emphasis in Heinlein's writings: more sex and philosophy, less fast-paced adventure. Heinlein comments: "Sex is so central an element in every human being and in the development of the human race that to have left it out of science fiction—as it was for many years—was a major fault in science fiction, and I'm very pleased that it's now possible to write about it…Human sexuality is so major a factor in the human race that any attempt to deal with the human race or with people realistically which omits this factor cannot really be a mature treatment. And yet I know there are people who would be made uneasy in some fashion if sex gets into it, and yet sex has to be in it if we're to have human beings."
For an author to explore new regions sometimes earns him harsh criticisms from fans who have liked previous works. "I never pay any attention to this," said Heinlein, "because it has been my intention—my purpose—to make every story I've written different from every other story I've written—never to write a story just like my last one."
And though he has been successful in this quest, every Heinlein story does have at least one thing in common with the others: each has the unmistakable imprint of the scientist-turned-minstrel who from under the microscope looks up at the most interesting specimens of all.
Neil Schulman is a free-lance writer and editor, recently transplanted from New York to Los Angeles. He is co-editor of New Libertarian Notes and was the organizer of several Countercon conferences.
beHEIN the LEIN:
Robert Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri on July 7, 1907 into a large family tracing its roots back to a Bavarian-German ancestor who emigrated to America in 1756. He was raised in Kansas City, Missouri, won an appointment to Annapolis where he was noted as a champion swordsman, and served as a line officer on destroyers and aircraft carriers for five years until being disabled out of the Navy. He started writing science fiction in 1939 "to pay off a mortgage" and within two years was regarded as one of the leaders in the field.
A widely travelled man of many interests and skills, Heinlein is an experienced research & development engineer in aircraft and high altitudes, as well as being a capable architect, mechanic, and construction worker. He is a lover of Chopin, chess, and contract bridge, the last two being "compelling time-takers" which he says he won't again have time for until he retires from writing—if ever.
He presently lives in a self-designed house outside Santa Cruz, California "which is circular because Mrs. Heinlein wanted a circular house." Virginia Heinlein is a biochemist specializing in the genetics of tropical plants, and is an amateur linguist who can speak eight languages.
Robert Heinlein has twice been Guest of Honor at World Science Fiction Conventions (1941 and 1961) and he will again be Guest of Honor at the 1976 Worldcon to be held in his hometown of Kansas City. Four of Heinlein's novels have won the coveted Hugo award given out by the World SF Conventions (an unmatched record), and this past April, the professional organization of the field, the Science Fiction Writers of America, made Heinlein the first and so far only recipient of its Grand Master Nebula Award for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in the science fiction genre.
Rumor has it that Mr. Heinlein has started work on yet another novel, and Berkeley Books has released his entire "Future History" in one paperback volume for the first time under the title, The Past Through Tomorrow.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Looking at Robert A. Heinlein".