Science Fiction

Reconciling Robert Heinlein's Ideological Range: A Coherent But Original Writer


Jeet Heer (who is a pal via correspondence and has done me a solid favor or three in the past, for disclosure's sake, as well as an accomplished historian of comics and culture) writes at the New Republic in review of the second volume of the (alas, recently deceased) William Patterson's huge estate-authorized biography of Robert Heinlein. This one is called Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better.


I wrote a mini-review of volume one for Reason back in 2011. Heer is very dissatisfied with the book, though mostly from the evidence in this review he's to begin with pretty dissatisfied with Heinlein and his work, especially in this later part of his life.

There's a lot to argue with, and even agree with, even for Heinlein devotees, in Heer's review. I'm going to leave alone his low opinion of Heinlein's later more self-indulgent work (which I still enjoyed, though recognizing they were a sort of self-fan-fiction and not for the mundanes) and the extent to which it's fair to judge Heinlein as a writer over how much one agreed with his viewpoints, even when his novels, as Heer justly notes, turned more and more toward exposition of those viewpoints.

I have not yet read volume 2 of Patterson so can't speak to Heer's specific thoughts on the book, except to make a sideways comment that huge biographies written by highly respectful fans of a subject (like Patterson) are bound to disappoint those who are not highly respectful fans (seems to be the case with Heer).

This makes such books disappointing, to be sure, to such an audience, but not necessarily a bad book or a bad (authorized) biography, which have their own known limitations and quirks.

Here's the one point I'm going to engage at length here, from Heer's review:

Heinlein's books in his right-wing phase hardly add up to a logical worldview. How do we reconcile the savage authoritarianism of Starship Troopers with the peace-and-love mysticism of Stranger in a Strange Land? For that matter, how do those two books jibe to the nearly anarchist libertarianism of the Moon Is a Harsh Mistress? On a more practical plain, how could Heinlein have called for both limited government and a NASA committed to colonizing space (surely a big government program if there ever was one)? TANSTAAFL went out the window when a space or military program caught Heinlein's fancy.

I'm going to be drawing from observations made in my 2007 Reason feature on Heinlein's centennial, since it focuses on Heinlein's interestingly peculiar, cover-the-waterfront style of libertarianism, which perplexes Heer.

First, as Heer rightly notes, Heinlein had a solipsistic streak. He was a man in his own universe with his own ideas, not necessarily fitting comfortably into any ideological pigeonhole ready made. He was, at least up until the early '60s, an influence on modern libertarianism, not influenced by it. He was writing stories, like "Coventry," that seemed of the modern libertarian movement before it existed, with its society in which government was freely entered into and restricted only harming others.

Henlein was in his way an innovator and trailblazer, not flying an existing flag. (By Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966 he was being influenced by anarcho-libertarian educator Robert LeFevre, also the first libertarian teacher of the Koch brothers.) See this blog post by me for Heinlein taking some far out anarcho-notions seriously, but as a storyteller, which he was. One would be wrong to pretend Heinlein wasn't playing with ideas he mostly believed in, but he was always at the same time a storyteller playing with ideas, so taking all the attitudes and stances in his fiction and striving to find light between them isn't necessarily a fair way of judging his mind.

At any rate, he held to no pre-set creed. As Heinlein once said, quoted in my 2007 article, "I'm so much a libertarian that I have no use for the whole libertarian movement." (He also joked that he made Ayn Rand look like a socialist.)

So, he's not going to come across as doctrinaire libertarian, liberal, Americanist, right-winger, or anything. He was sui generis, a Heinleinian, first but influential enough that he won't be last. He also lacked, for example, the economist-libertarians faith in the fecund powers of the free market; as he once told S.F. writer, libertarian, and fan J. Neil Schulman, again quoted in my 2007 article, "I don't think the increase in efficiency on the part of free enterprise is that great. The justification for free enterprise is not that it's more efficient, but that it's free."

And one can indeed make coherent sense of what Heer sees as a jumble above.

Heinlein himself, as I quoted him in my 2007 feature, explained precisely, in a letter originally to fellow S.F. great Alfred Bester, the idea that connected Troopers and Stranger:

to Heinlein, these dueling visions—a world of sinister alien bugs fought off by powerfully disciplined soldiers, and a beatific Man from Mars teaching humanity how to love freely—had the same message…: "That a man, to be truly human, must be unhesitatingly willing at all times to lay down his life for his fellow man. Both [novels] are based on the twin concepts of love and duty—and how they are related to the survival of our race."

So Heinlein was less pure ideologue than realist, or what he thought was a realist. He thought there were certain facts of reality about our roles as mammals and families and tribes, and about the harsh violence of both other men and potentially other creatures we might meet in space, that made the military organization in Troopers both necessary, glorious, and conducive to liberty. As Heer knows, a draft was always anathema to him, as was failing to do your duty as man and human. There was no contradiction between the Heinlein of Troopers, Stranger, and Moon: They all dramatized in different situations a coherent vision of a properly free man relating to other men, to government, and to mores in a universe with a specific nature.

As for NASA and space travel, Heinlein was, before he was a fan of NASA, a prophet and advocate of private space travel, from "Man Who Sold the Moon" to Rocket Ship Galileo to the 1950 film he co-wrote, Destination: Moon. (I wrote about that movie in the book Science Fiction Film Reader.) He did believe in TANSTAAFL (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch)—a fact of reality that had moral implications, but not by itself a moral statement one was obligated to try to live by. We all just did live by it, like it or not, know it or not—but it's better to know it.

Heinlein believed, as he wrote in his essay "Spinoffs," reprinted in his book Expanded Universes, that even a government space program more than paid for itself in its spinoff products of technology to make the state money spent on it worth it, to have more than repaid the "free lunch" of government funding. So, no going out the window involved; just a nuanced and, Heinlein thought, scientific judgement of value returned.

You might disagree with him on that, as scientist, economist, or libertarian. But it did not make him a hypocrite or incoherent per se; just someone who wasn't as readily identifiable an ideologue as you might take him for, or as his influence on libertarianism might make you think he was.

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  1. People always want their entertainment heroes to be like them. Heinlein was first and foremost a writer and entertainer. He covered a lot of bases and presented a lot of ideas, and also put out pure fluff entertainment too. That makes his work more interesting than if he was some doctrinaire political specimen, even if he was doctrinaire libertarian.

    1. Heinlein was first and foremost a writer and entertainer.

      He was keenly aware that his books were, as he put it, in competition with beer money, and that if he could insert some content that would make people think into a profitable novel then he was pleased, but the emphasis was on profitable.

      It always seemed to me that he enjoyed playing with ideas as much as anything else. The underpinning philosophy as far as I can tell has been as was mentioned in the post: Family, Duty, Economy, Freedom seemingly in that order.

      Always was a big Heinlein fan and so were my parents, given that they named me after Lazarus Long. (from Time Enough For Love, exactly) I’ve always been grateful for them turning me on to reading him at a young age.

      1. Your name is Long Wang?

        It’s funny to go from, say, Starship Troopers to Harsh Mistress to Puppet Masters and see the range of subjects he would cover. The first two are extremely different explorations on possible political and social setups, and the third is a pure alien invasion fantasy with pretty much almost no politics in it at all.

        1. Lazarus Wang, you cretin.

        2. Your name is Long Wang?

          It would have been a lot easier to wait tables on Sunday mornings if that was the case. 🙂

          and see the range of subjects he would cover.

          Kinda what I meant about playing with ideas. I think that part of him enjoyed the activity of thinking and stretching his worldview in a way that is alien to most people.

        3. the third is a pure alien invasion fantasy with pretty much almost no politics in it at all

          Interestingly, this is one of his books most denounced by critics as being born in the Red Scare. I’ve always seen it as a pretty blunt attack on communism and its western sympathizers.

          1. People said the same thing about Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and I saw an interview with Kevin McCarthy where he’s asked about this. His response was basically “it was a damn movie about aliens taking over people. Nothing more.”

            People have an inherent fear of assimilation, so it makes for very interesting horror. I think people read far too much into something very simple.

      2. He was keenly aware that his books were, as he put it, in competition with beer money

        He makes that point in one of his books when his first-person protagonist makes a good living writing romance novels. The protagonist makes the point that there’s a lot of money in it.

  2. See this blog post by me for Heinlein taking some far out anarcho-notions seriously, but as a storyteller, which he was.

    I’ve read this sentence 5 times and I’m still not sure what Doherty is trying to tell me.

    1. I think the squirrels captured his words, chewed them up like acorns, and spit out that line.

      1. It says what it means and means what it says.

    2. This is how I read it:

      “See this blog post by me for to see Heinlein taking some far out anarcho-notions seriously — but as a storyteller (which he was).”

  3. Heinlein invented the waterbed, and no one that brought that much sloshy joy to so many people could ever have followed the grey ideology for very long.

    1. And I helped!

  4. Heinlein liked taking an idea and then spinning it out to an extreme, just to see where it went, and how people reacted to it. For example, when Lazarus Long bangs his own mother. Just writing that sentence creeps me out, and even in the context of time travel, it still seems wrong to me, but I can totally appreciate how he took that weave of that idea, unraveled it and explored what it is made of. It doesn’t mean Heinlein thought Oedipus was a hero.

    1. The take from the Lazarus books was redefining incest as meaning that the offspring of the union would be defective. I don’t think that he meant so much as to champion tagging your mother as much as inviting the idea of looking at social constructs with a scientific eye. Basically asking the question if this behavior, which has been considered immoral forever at least partly because it leads to poor outcomes could be made risk free is there still a case to be made against it? Definitely creepy to think about for us which makes his asking it useful in itself by encouraging rethinking received wisdom. It’s not so much that Heinlein was encouraging people to rethink incest as it was to just get them to rethink anything they might be taking for granted.

      1. Exactly. He was taking a topic normally regarded with knee-jerk (and well-deserved) disgust, and twisting it in a way that illuminates the taboo in a different light.

        1. His group marriages in Moon are another example of that, imo.

          1. Yes. Way too complicated for me. One wife is all I care to handle.

            1. I take the Biblical view: No man can serve two masters.

    2. That SF how the best SF is written. Asimov and Niven wrote that way, so does Charles Stross.

  5. Just an editorial issue: TANSTAAFL (there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch) is defined several paragraphs after its first use. I had to Google it the first time.

    1. It’s a literary device, not a tech manual.

      … Hobbit

  6. I have to take issue with calling Starship Troopers “savagely authoritarian.” This is the usual conflating the distinct questions of “what power does the government have?” and “who controls the government?” There’s no reason one couldn’t have a “night watchman state” minarchy with voting limited to veterans as in ST. It might not stay a minarchy, but we have that risk with the universal franchise when “the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury.”

    1. Agreed. “Savagely authoritarian” would be “everybody serves whether they want to or not.” ST was “only volunteers serve.” Absent the war “service” would have been two years in a government job.

    2. Me too – I thought Starship Troopers was a libertarian utopia that happened to be at war. In the background history (written in the 50’s) predicted a Vietnam type war that got out of hand with China. It was Veterans sick of war and sick of big government who put things back together.

    3. Anyone who refers to ‘Starship Troopers’ as ‘savagely aurhoritarian’ has only seen the movie.

  7. I personally wonder how an actual accomplished historian of culture could find it even momentarily confusing that an author of speculative fiction wrote speculation about several possible societies in the medium of fiction, rather than doctrinaire politics.

    1. Wow. Um. Nothing to add. Well-said.

  8. Good piece, Mr. Doherty.

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