L.A.'s Nostradamus

How Robert Heinlein anticipated Southern California politics and culture.


The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein was born in Missouri, and his fiction was mostly set in the future and on distant planets. But there's no question that Heinlein—born 100 years ago this week—was one of Southern California's great prophets. He lived in Los Angeles in the 1930s and '40s, and first turned to writing because of looming mortgage payments after his failed campaign in 1938 to represent Hollywood in the Assembly. Though he would later become a great inspiration to libertarians, Heinlein was then an active member of novelist Upton Sinclair's popular quasi-socialist "End Poverty in California" movement.

From the beginning of his career as a writer in 1939 (when he published his first story, "Life-Line," in Astounding Science-Fiction magazine), Heinlein was one of the field's masters. Before that, science fiction had been mostly either a heavy-handed and didactic genre or one concerned with unsophisticated fantastic adventure tales. Heinlein added sophistication and realism, creating a future world that seemed everyday and lived-in, not impossibly distant. He treated rockets and space travel as matter-of-fact details of human life—as Heinlein believed they would and must become.

From 1939 until his death in 1988, Heinlein was science fiction's acknowledged leader, with 33 popular novels, most of them in print decades later. He was the first to be awarded the annual Grand Master title by his fellow science fiction writers, ahead of such other genre heroes as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. He won four Hugo Awards for his novels and helped set the genre's standards for dealing with everything from time travel to interplanetary colonization and war to super-longevity.

"Destination Moon," a 1950 movie he co-scripted, loosely based on one of his novels, was doubly significant for Southern California. It was one of the first sober, serious science fiction movies (even if its vision of a first moon landing by plucky inventors was mistaken), and it helped lay the groundwork for a Hollywood genre that has pumped multimillions into our entertainment industry. Five of the top 20 U.S. grossing movies of all time have space travel as a theme—four of George Lucas' "Star Wars" movies and "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial."

"Destination Moon" was also a critical inspiration for the modern aerospace age that was so vital to Southern California's postwar good fortune. As James Schefter wrote in "The Race: The Uncensored Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon": " 'Destination Moon' inflamed the imaginations of teens and preteens. A 9-year-old in 1950 would be the average adult working in a certain windowless room in Houston 19 years later" when Apollo 11 landed human beings on the moon for the first time.

It's hard to remember now just how important Heinlein was in popularizing the concept of space travel. Walter Cronkite made him a star of CBS' coverage of the first moon landing. NASA granted him a posthumous Distinguished Public Service Medal that read, "Through dozens of superbly written novels and essays and the epoch-making movie 'Destination Moon,' he helped inspire the nation to take its first step into space and on to the moon."

True enough, although as a libertarian, Heinlein thought space travel was too important to be left in the hands of government. In a sense, the industrialists, pilots and dreamers who gathered at California's Mojave spaceport in October 2004 watching SpaceShipOne win the X Prize for sending a private craft to space and back were living out Heinlein's dream.

Heinlein's novels were also powerful precursors of Southern California politics and culture, especially as they unfolded in the change-filled 1960s. Consider two of his many books: "Starship Troopers" and "Stranger in a Strange Land."

California, and specifically Southern California, was key to Barry Goldwater's surprising 1964 GOP nomination victory. Goldwater's rough-hewn combination of a crusty, antigovernment attitude and extreme bellicosity against communism—which he saw as an unacceptable threat to American individualism—resonated deeply in Southern California at the time.

But the Goldwater surge was preceded by a mini-movement Heinlein tried to create in 1958 with the "Patrick Henry League," dedicated to the notion that the truest expression of U.S. liberty was preparing for a fight to the finish with international communism.

Heinlein laid some of these concepts out in his 1959 "Starship Troopers," offering up the idea that American liberty and a relentless fight against the Soviets were inextricably linked—a science fiction version of Goldwater's subsequent message. It presented a world of low taxes and few laws in which only veterans of public service could vote (not only military veterans, contrary to some Heinlein detractors who saw something fascist in the novel) and where brave young men gave the last full measure of devotion to defeat an insectoid alien menace that was a clear metaphor for communism.

Heinlein's next novel, 1961's "Stranger in a Strange Land," presages a very different side of 1960s California: the groovy, communal aspect, an atmosphere in which new, non-Western religions bring an alternative spirituality to America, in which old mores are questioned in the name of sexual and religious liberty.

The novel is the story of a messiah from Mars who tells us that "thou are God" and preaches non-jealous free love and communal property ownership. The book provided a model for countercultural living that many young people adopted as the '60s went on, especially in California.

Although some of Charles Manson's acolytes were "Stranger" fans, Manson himself was not, contrary to rumor, directly influenced by it. But Manson's brand of communal living—with a charismatic leader who took upon himself the power of life and death—did have some resemblance to the "nests" of Heinlein's hero, Valentine Michael Smith, who could and did make enemies disappear with a thought, and his "Church of All Worlds."

Counterculture hero David Crosby was also a huge fan of "Stranger in a Strange Land," and wrote a "Stranger"-inspired song, "Triad," about communal-loving "water brothers." The tune was too weird and daring for his bandmates in The Byrds, helping trigger the decision to boot Crosby from the L.A.-based band. (Jefferson Airplane recorded it instead.)

Although science fiction's visions and handling of character have become more complex and sophisticated in many ways since Heinlein's day, his wide-ranging speculations about human futures created a still-valuable mix of ideas and entertainment. In his peculiar and unprecedented combination of rocket visions, a tough-minded individualism respectful of the military and iconoclastic free living, Heinlein is truly the bard of Southern California.

Brian Doherty is a senior editor for reason. This article orginally appeared in the July 1, 2007 Los Angeles Times.

Discuss this article online.