Robert Heinlein 1907-1988
(Full name Robert Anson Heinlein; wrote under the pseudonyms Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, Caleb Saunder, and Simea York) American short story writer, novelist, screenwriter, essayist, and children's author.
Heinlein is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers of the twentieth century. A prolific author, his short stories are characterized by their highly developed and believable futuristic worlds, replete with scientific and technological advances and attention to detail. He is often ranked with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke as a master of the science fiction genre, yet his work has inspired a mixed critical reaction.
Heinlein was born on July 7, 1907, in Butler, Missouri. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and did graduate study in physics and mathematics at the University of California in Los Angeles. After leaving school, he worked as an architect, real estate agent, aeronautical engineer, and electronics company official. During World War II, he served as an aviation engineer with the U.S. Navy. He wrote several engineering textbooks during those years. In 1939 Heinlein wrote his first story, “Life-Line,” which was published in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1939. From that time, his stories and novels were published in several periodicals, such as Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. He authored more than forty-five books, most of which have been published in at least thirty languages. He was the first science fiction writer to appear on a bestseller list. During his long career, he was awarded four Hugo awards, four Best Science Fiction Novel awards from the World Science Fiction Convention, and the first Grand Master Nebula Award, given to Heinlein in 1975 by the Science Fiction Writers of America for his lifelong contribution to the genre. He died of heart failure on May 8, 1988, in Carmel, California.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Heinlein's fiction is characterized by his reliance on a dominant, independent hero and the conflict between individualism and collectivism. In his stories, he emphasized themes of self-reliance, patriotism, and individualism, which often led to criticism of his work as extremely conservative in nature. For example, “Gulf” features a protagonist who is recruited into a secret elite force—a master race—who plans to conquer the Earth through assassination. At first shocked, he soon adopts the group's disdain for democracy and collectivism. Heinlein's best-known collection of short fiction, The Past Through Tomorrow (1967), contains previously published stories and a detailed background chart—known as Future History—that provides the chronology of the major events in the stories, the lifelines of the major characters, and technological, sociological, and political developments. In one of the stories in the collection, “Requiem” (1939), an elderly industrialist, D. D. Harriman, finances and directs the first trip to the moon on a manned rocket. He stands by, frustrated, as others travel to the moon and establish a base. Finally, he makes the journey, knowing it will probably kill him. He dies shortly after his arrival, a happy man.
There has been a polarized critical reaction to Heinlein's career. Many commentators have deemed his fiction as extremely conservative, even fascist; moreover, the perception of him as a Social Darwinist and right-wing author has negatively prejudiced the overall consensus on his work. Defenders of Heinlein's short stories and novels reject this classification of him, asserting that his stories and novels exhibit racial and social tolerance. They contend that he should be categorized as libertarian and iconoclastic. The conflict between individualism and collectivism is considered the dominant theme in Heinlein's work. Critical commentary has also focused on the sexuality in his stories, the role of technology, and his portrayal of alien civilizations. His later work is denigrated by some reviewers as didactic, stylistically monotonous, and solipsist. Yet he has been praised for his attention to detail, and his rendering of imaginative scientific and technological advances and their impact on human civilization. No matter the opinion on Heinlein's work itself, critics do not deny the profound impact his short stories and novels had on the genre of science fiction. In fact, some commentators have compared his influence on the science fiction genre to that of H. G. Wells.
The Man Who Sold the Moon 1950
Waldo and Magic, Inc. 1950
The Green Hills of Earth 1951
Assignment in Eternity 1953
The Menace from Earth 1959
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag 1959
The Past through Tomorrow: Future History Stories 1966
The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein 1966
The Best of Robert Heinlein: 1939-1959. 2 vols. 1973
Destination Moon 1979
Expanded Universe: More Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein 1980
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SOURCE: Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein, pp. 9-39. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977.
[In the following excerpt, Slusser surveys the plots and major thematic concerns of Heinlein's short fiction.]
Heinlein's short stories belong, essentially, to his early years. From his first published tale, “Life-Line” (August 1939) through 1942, when the war briefly interrupted his writing career, Heinlein worked exclusively in shorter forms, and the medium-length serialized narratives which, in their episodic quality, bear more affinity with the story than the novel. The majority of these early tales...
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SOURCE: Gaar, Alice Carol. “The Human as Machine Analog: The Big Daddy of Interchangeable Parts in the Fiction of Robert A. Heinlein.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 64-82. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Gaar explores the theme of interchangeable parts and the central figure in several of Heinlein's novellas and short stories.]
There is a discontinuity between the rate of moral development in the human being and the exponential rate of technological progress. One might state it in a simpler way: The tool grows better and better, while its user is the same old hairless ape. The...
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SOURCE: Sarti, Ronald. “Variations on a Theme: Human Sexuality in the Work of Robert A. Heinlein.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 107-36. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Sarti traces Heinlein's treatment of gender roles and sexuality in his short fiction.]
By the end of the 1950s, Robert Heinlein had established himself as the Dean of science fiction, a beloved storyteller whose ways had grown familiar after twenty years of pleasurable reading. Few would have wanted him to change, and fewer still would have expected it. And yet, abruptly, Heinlein's work did change. With the...
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SOURCE: Tucker, Frank H. “Major Political and Social Elements in Heinlein's Fiction.” In Robert A. Heinlein, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, pp. 172-93. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978.
[In the following essay, Tucker explores the political, social, and economic threads found in Heinlein's fiction.]
In discussing the principal political and social ideas which are expressed or reflected in the Heinlein literature, it is best to begin by observing that these are in no sense tract novels and stories, and the political content is secondary or even incidental to the narratives. One should also note that the usual uncertainty regarding...
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SOURCE: Franklin, H. Bruce. “From Depression into World War II: The Early Fiction.” In Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, pp. 17-63. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.
[In the following essay, Franklin discusses the defining characteristics of Heinlein's early short fiction.]
“—during the '30's almost everyone, from truck driver to hatcheck girl, had a scheme for setting the world right in six easy lessons; and a surprising percentage managed to get their schemes published.”
—Robert Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll,” June 1940
In 1938 the atom was split. That did...
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SOURCE: Wolfe, Gary K. “Autoplastic and Alloplastic Adaptations in Science Fiction: ‘Waldo’ and ‘Desertion’.” In Coordinates: Placing Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes, pp. 65-79. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
[In the following essay, Wolfe contrasts the different approaches of Heinlein's Waldo and Clifford D. Simak's “Desertion” to the problem of integration between body and environment.]
At a recent gathering of science fiction fans—a “con,” to use the jargon of the fans themselves—an acquaintance and I were watching the bizarrely dressed crowd milling...
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SOURCE: Slusser, George. “Notes and Correspondence: Robert Anson Heinlein, 1907-88.” Science Fiction Studies 15, no. 3 (November 1988): 385-86.
[In the following essay, Slusser reflects on his personal friendship with Heinlein.]
In the newspaper Tuesday morning, May 10th, I read that Robert A. Heinlein had died Monday in his sleep from heart ailments and emphysema. He was 80 years old, and had lived a long, rich, and creative life. Death was merciful to him. And yet I had difficulty believing he was really dead. After all, the single theme of his work, over all those years, is the quest for material life at all costs. Once pushed into this life, you fought for all...
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SOURCE: Slusser, George. “Heinlein's Fallen Futures.” Extrapolation 36, no. 2 (summer 1995): 96-112.
[In the following essay, Slusser evaluates the impact of Heinlein's work, viewing him as “a national writer, one who carries into a new scientific century cultural and ethical patterns first conceived by nineteenth-century American thinkers and writers of ‘romance’.”]
Robert Heinlein's long career has ended. Thus, there is the need, more urgent than ever, to assess the nature and importance of his work. But on what level should this assessment take place? The old-style fan saw Heinlein, both writer and public persona, as the quintessential SF writer and...
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SOURCE: McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “Heinlein's Solar System, 1940-1952.” Science Fiction Studies 23, no. 2 (July 1996): 245-52.
[In the following essay, McGiveron explores the role of extraterrestrials in Heinlein's fiction.]
“Noisy” Rhysling, the wandering blind poet of the spaceways in Robert A. Heinlein's “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), sings,
We've tried each spinning space mote And reckoned its true worth: Take us back again to the homes of men On the cool, green hills of Earth.
Despite his apparent dismissal of “the harsh bright soil of Luna” and the jungles of a pulp-fiction Venus...
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Franklin, H. Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980, 232 p.
Traces Heinlein's literary development.
Olander, Joseph D. and Greenberg, Martin Harry, eds. Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Taplinger Publishing Co., 1978, 268 p.
Collection of critical essays.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977, 63 p.
Classifies Heinlein's literary career into periods and discusses the defining characteristics of each category.
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Heinlein, Robert (Vol. 14)
Heinlein, Robert 1907–
An American science fiction novelist and short story writer, Heinlein established his reputation writing stories for Astounding in the forties. Today he is, along with Isaac Asimov, the dean of American science fiction writers. His Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult novel among the college youth of the mid-sixties, drawing attention to science fiction as a literary genre warranting more serious consideration than had previously been granted it. Heinlein has also written under the pseudonyms of Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, and Caleb Saunders. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
In 1959, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers won the Hugo award as the year's best science fiction novel. Critics and reviewers have been apologizing for that fact ever since. Even admirers of Heinlein as a logician and story-teller condemn Starship Troopers as a "militaristic polemic" glorifying a violent, proto-fascist ethic, creating a polarized society in which heroic war veterans rule over "draftdodgers, effeminate snobs, pacifists, and other animals of low standing." (p. 113)
Evaluating [the charges of fascism and militarism] is complicated by the fact that Heinlein's society is not presented in detail. It is a framework supporting an adventure story, and any scholarly analysis runs the risk of pedantry, of burdening the novel with such a weight of footnotes that it sinks without a ripple. Nevertheless, consideration of the social structure outlined in Starship Troopers in the context of recent scholarship on fascism and militarism suggests that, in fact, neither ideology is embodied in this work, and that critics of Heinlein's views and visions must find new pejorative terms with which to condemn the novel.
The charge of fascism can be most easily dismissed, since the world of Starship Troopers has literally none of the characteristics commonly associated with fascist societies. Such concepts as a revolt against bolshevism, a reaction to liberalism and positivism, and a desire to restore an organic community, can be neither supported nor extrapolated from the novel's context…. More significantly, Heinlein offers no other common bench marks of fascism. There is no indication of a...
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[What] is a "classic" Heinlein work? Most criticism of Heinlein begins and ends here. Invariably, each individual critic has chosen the works he likes best, dubbed them classics, and consigned the rest to oblivion…. The years to be covered in this study include, basically, the 1940s and 1950s—the period of the stories and novellas, and the novels of juvenile adventure. Unfortunately, there is no touchstone which allows a reader infallibly to pick "classics" out of this span. What is possible, however, is a definition of process that will permit us to study Heinlein's evolution as a writer over two long and full decades. (p. 3)
[If] chronological periods are marked off at all [in Heinlein's work], they must be ordered in terms of genre. The use of a given form, in Heinlein's case, was dictated in large part during [his] early and middle years by the vagaries of science fiction publishing. His first (and only) market was pulp magazines, so he wrote short stories and novellalength serials. The switch to novels after the war … demanded that he adopt the strict formulas and conventions imposed by his market—in this case, juvenile adventure. The middle period, then, begins with Heinlein's first full-length novel conceived as such, the space epic Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), and ends when what I call the subverted adventure finally rears its ugly head in Starship Troopers (1959)…. Not all the novels of this period were juvenile, however. Two old serials were quickly published as novels: Beyond the Horizon (1948) and Sixth Column (1949). In 1951, Doubleday published Heinlein's first original "adult" novel, The Puppet Masters. The novels of this decade are basically of two sorts: the adolescent space adventure dominates—these are novels of initiation to manhood, in which a boy comes of age in outer space. The adult works are novels of political intrigue. But they also, in a sense, are stories of initiation. The heroes are young men instead of boys, and their field of action the "grown-up" world of nations and espionage. Still, they have as much to learn, and the situation is meant to test (and teach) them. In fact, these two modes tend to conflate in the later novels of the period. Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) has a boy hero who grows to be a young man; it has space adventure, political intrigue, and much more. (p. 4)
[Conventional] patterns of heroic adventure and formation dominate the works of the 1950s. And yet, as patterns they seem in many ways contrary to Heinlein's deep-seated vision of things. In contrast to the juvenile novels, few of his early narratives have tight construction, or even "plots" at all. Indeed the episodic, almost impressionistic nature of these works has always puzzled critics. They expect "character studies" in the traditional sense, where an individual shapes himself and is shaped in the matrix of free choice and chance event. They do not get them. On the contrary, Heinlein seems most willing to exploit the other, anecdotal tradition of the short story. In like manner, the tendency of serialized narratives to decompose into a row of autonomous units appears to favor rather than hinder his sense of construction. Behind the looseness of these forms, in fact, lies a much different basic pattern—call it predestination. In Heinlein's stories, man's acts do not carry through, nor do they link future sections in causal fashion, so much as illustrate, in any number of particular, exemplary moments, the workings of an immutable higher order.
In light of this, it is tempting to set aside the juvenile novels, and seek the germ of Heinlein's later problem fiction solely in these early stories and novellas…. The middle novels, however, cannot be ignored as anomalies. On the contrary, they are the crucial step in Heinlein's development as a writer. There is no sudden conversion from formless episodic works to tightly wrought stories of adventure…. Nor are these adventure patterns simply abandoned, either. Heinlein retains them in his late novels, but has modified their form and function. (pp. 5-6)
A pattern of election and predestination is dominant throughout Heinlein's work. It exists most visibly and openly in the early tales and novellas, and here it should first be grasped. Significantly, among these stories tight plots occur only in those that celebrate the workings of inexorable destiny—time-travel paradoxes, and various tales of sacrifice. In the latter, a man (he may be any size or shape, with results ranging from "tragic" to comic) is chosen, and simply accepts to do the job. He neither rebels against the machine, nor sets himself above it—he takes his place unhesitatingly in its workings.
The looser structures seem, contrarily, to center on the exploits of one powerful personality. If we look more closely, however, we see that he too, paradoxically, is more chosen than chooser. He achieves rank and power, but less through personal actions than by a special "vision," a pre-disposition. (p. 6)
Heinlein's elite are not known by physical signs, nor do they bear the traditional hero's stamp. Their deeds do not really designate them (they may give sample displays of power, no more). Instead, their true work is a common mental disposition: they believe in individual freedom, and are willing to band together to fight entangling bureaucracy and mass strictures. The goal of these libertarians is simply to keep the channels of election open…. Significantly, once their own society within society is formed, they proceed to develop even tighter regulations than the structures they replace. What was custom on the outside takes on the force of code and ritual inside. (pp. 6-7)
[Heinlein's laissez faire "philosophy" is rooted] in patterns that are both cultural and mythical. The advent of religion in Stranger and the other later novels is no accident, nor is the harshly Calvinistic nature of this creed. Calvinistic figurations are present in Heinlein's earliest stories—they run throughout his work in one form or another. These variations, however, are important: there are three discernable phases. The first, essentially but not exclusively that of the early stories and novellas, could be called the Puritan phase—Heinlein's emphasis in these stories is on worldly hierarchies of the elect. At the point, in the juvenile novels, where predestination and conventional heroic patterns meet, we have a second, more "democratic" phase: the rule of the visionary company gives way momentarily to the possibility of Everyman as hero. The third phase, that of Stranger and its kindred novels, is more purely Calvinist. The mechanisms of election are reaffirmed; but, as with the Everyman hero, the group also pales before the all-absorbing problem of superman before grace. (p. 7)
In Heinlein's latest novels, however, such groups wane beside the rising star of one supreme existence, and we find something comparable to Calvinist "supernatural grace." Election … overleaps regular channels, elides everything into one epiphanic moment. This contrasts with the early stories, where, if election takes place, it is analagous to what was once called "common grace," the form most amenable to the worldly Puritans because it sanctioned their theocratic order. Its path was visible both in the ritual and social structures of their group—it was God's will incarnate. Indeed, Heinlein's characters in these stories do little more than act out such concrete designs of providence. The thrust of election is both worldly and functional; its result is a firm and efficient social hierarchy.
The roots of Heinlein's basic pattern go deep into the American past. They can be found at that point where the social forces of the Puritan Church and the new mercantile elite of the enlightenment cross and blend, where church member and property owner meet. Indeed, behind the seemingly "democratic" facade of "inner light" grace stands the Puritan theocracy, interpreting their own worldly success as a sign of election. In the same way, behind the Enlightened doctrine of "liberty and justice for all" lies the basic inequality of entrepreneurial society; add this to the sanction of Puritan doctrine, and it becomes incontestable; add a "Darwinian" sanction, and it becomes hereditary as well. Heinlein holds up the same masks of freedom and individual liberty. And yet he despises the incompetent and weak, the democratic processes that enfranchise what he calls "homo sap."
In taking up the juvenile adventure, Heinlein must adopt quite a contrary pattern. However unlikely the channel, through it he taps a tradition that, if not egalitarian, is eminently humanistic. Heroic action at least implies that man makes his way in the world through moral qualities that many humans (not just the happy few) recognize and to some extent possess. The novels in which Heinlein develops this pattern are full of a strange tension. Can the individual help shape his destiny through willed action? Or are deeds futile in a fallen world? Is not election rather irrational and unearnable, a gift beyond all sense of personal merit? Born of this tension, perhaps, is the new emphasis, in Heinlein's novels of the 1960s and 1970s on the ambiguities of election. Out of it rises the new Heinlein hero: supreme man alone before his hidden god. (p. 8)
No matter what their intended audience, all [Heinlein's] stories share one structural characteristic—they are loosely episodic. This openness fits Heinlein's purpose admirably. Only in the most external sense does a Heinlein story focus on a crucial moment in the life of a character. His protagonists do not, through some process of self-discovery, come to a climatic recognition of identity or place in the world order. Nor are there "surprise endings" in the classic sense, where an ironic twist of fate reveals a man's character to himself. On the contrary, the heroes of Heinlein's tales seem to know from the start what they must do: they face their destiny, accepting it with a singular lack of resistance or self-searching. But there is more here than "doing one's duty": the hero seems chosen, compelled by some inner predilection that goes against all reason or common sense. What the narrative invariably examines, as step by step it becomes visible, is the mechanism of election itself. This can take myriad forms—the more involuted the better—but there is always the same underlying pattern. If the story ends with a surprise, it is the wonder of destiny, always fortunate in some higher sense, if not for its immediate agent. Indeed, the final emphasis is not on the disparity between individual aspirations and the whole, but on their harmony. In amazing ways, the two strands unite, the expendable acts of one being spill over into the larger ongoing process of racial destiny, apparently advancing according to a predetermined plan toward some glorious end. Only in the later Heinlein will that end itself become problematical. (pp. 9-10)
[Heinlein's first story, "Life-Line,"] is a work directly antipodal to the adventure story and its well-hewn plot. Indeed, the center of this sequence of episodes is less a character than a problem. Pinero is more than a model of how we should act. The man and his machine embody a much more general pattern, not of conduct, but of universal law. Instead of enacting destiny, they literally incarnate it. This tale, then, is clearly allegorical. As such it stands, at the onset of his career, as a microcosm of Heinlein's world. (p. 10)
If "Life-Line" is an allegory, what does it signify? The theory behind Pinero's machine [that measures each human life] is simple: a human life span, like that of the race as a whole, is a material entity…. In this purely physical sense, each individual life is pre-determined. The machine gives man foreknowledge. For the majority, however, this knowledge is intolerable: life is livable only in uncertainty. And yet, Pinero proves that struggle and a clear vision of one's fate are not incompatible. In contrast to the others, he sees the moment of his death and its cause—the defense of his own machine—and still pushes on, meeting his end with calm dignity. What else can he do? Man can know his destiny, but not alter it…. (p. 11)
Pinero is the prototype for Heinlein's elite man: all are marked by what might be called a creative capacity to accept the inevitable. But where does this superiority come from? It is nothing the hero develops—this would imply that any man could do it—but rather something he already has. Indeed, its existence is clearly placed on a level outside commonality. It is not a biological trait in the ordinary sense, for Pinero possesses neither physical beauty nor strength. Nor, apparently, does he have the craft or cunning necessary for blind survival at all costs—if anyone has these, it is this opponents. Pinero puts his great...
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The "best" science fiction writer for most [readers] is a composite entity: Heinleinasimovclarke—usually in that order…. Omitting the enthusiastic burblers who can neither see, hear, nor speak evil of Heinlein, most critics have managed a certain consensus—they like his writing, but the sins of commission and omission in his writing are staggering: poor use of language, weak and inadequate plotting, poor storytelling techniques, and incapacity to handle mature sexual themes being the worst offenders. Yet people, even his severest critics, like his writing, and he sells well. Most importantly, he is capable of attracting readers with a wide age differential and with widely disparate educational backgrounds....
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In an attempt to account for the extraordinary popularity and influence of the novels of Robert Heinlein, it would be all too easy to assert that the masses are asses and let it go at that. Those of us academics who read Heinlein are likely to admit it with an apology, acknowledging that we realize his literary merit is probably small and our weakness in enjoying his work a minor character defect. We feel we should not relish his opinionated expressions…. We note that frankly didactic literature has always had a relatively small but devoted readership, especially among those whose prejudices and biases coincide with the author's.
But Heinlein's appeal somehow seems to be broader than these general...
(The entire section is 1982 words.)
Heinlein, Robert (Vol. 8)
Heinlein, Robert 1907–
American science fiction novelist and short story writer, Heinlein established his reputation writing stories for Astounding in the forties. Today he is, along with Isaac Asimov, the dean of American science fiction writers. His Stranger in a Strange Land became a cult novel among the college youth of the mid-sixties, drawing attention to science fiction as a literary genre warranting more serious consideration than had previously been granted it. Heinlein has also written under the pseudonyms of Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, and Caleb Saunders. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
[Stranger in a Strange Land] is the story, told in detail with sardonic humor, of Valentine Michael Smith, a Mars-born earth child. Raised by Martians after the death of his parents and all other members of the first Martian expedition, Smith is returned to earth by crewmen of the second expedition twenty-five years later. Having been nurtured by the Martians, who are so non-earthly as to confound earthly analysis, Mike Smith is a Martian in an earth body. He thinks in Martian.
The rest of the novel is well-written—perhaps "slick" is the best adjective to describe Heinlein's style—as a variation on the noble savage theme, coupled with some intriguing variations of the Whorf-Sapir theory of linguistic relativity. You can't really appreciate Mike Smith or the Martians until you learn to think in Martian, and you begin to think in Martian when you begin to grok. As one character put it, "I grok it. Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas." Grok is the only Martian word used in the novel, but it is so basic to the Martian character, according to Heinlein, that an understanding of grok comes before an understanding of every other word in the Martian tongue.
As Heinlein handles the concept, the notion of grokking is crucial to the enlightened pantheism which is the religious construct of Stranger in a Strange Land. Grok means drink in basic Martian, and on a desert planet the sharing of water, or drinking together, becomes almost the highest, the only, religious sacrament. Those who share water become "water brothers," a unity so elevated that mistrust is impossible to one so internally baptized….
By a process of extension of meaning drawn from its earthly context, Heinlein adds a number of Terran modifications to the wildly alien Martian concept of grok. Grok seems first to mean know, understand, appreciate, comprehend. It resembles the hipster "dig." Gradually it comes to include love, cherish, create. [The] unsexual Martian grok becomes modified in the minds of the living Terrans: it broadens to include the fullest and most intimate communication humanly possible, the very essence of life itself, sexual intercourse. Thus transmuted, grok becomes a quasi-assonantal surrogate for its common Anglo-Saxon equivalent, and it revitalizes the archaic meaning of the Biblical know as well as emphasizes the ambiguity of the Terran word intercourse.
There are several further extrapolations of the term as Heinlein handles it. Grok also means life, as a logical extension of its meaning drink. In a most logical Martian way, all that groks is God. This concept leads Heinlein to build a quasipantheistic religious system with Mike Smith, man by ancestry but Martian by environment and thought processes, as its major prophet. The water ceremony is the sole sacrament: "Share water, drink deep, never thirst." In basic Martian this translates, approximately, into "Grok, grok, grok." (p. 4)
[The] central message of the novel [is] …, "All that groks is God." Alternately, God groks, in every sense of the word thus defined: God loves, drinks, creates, cherishes, infuses every being.
Heinlein carries the religious message of the novel even further by advancing the thoroughly Martian concept of ritual cannibalism…. The custom on Mars is formalized and deeply religious. The survivors would, by eating the discorporated one, thereby acquire some of his characteristics, attributes, or even eccentricities…. Of course, Heinlein does not evaluate any qualitative or quantitative differences between the symbolic cannibalism of most Terran religious sects and the actual cannibalism of the Martians. He leaves those discussions to his readers. (pp. 4-5)
Heinlein has apparently read his [Benjamin Whorf] well, because this concept of temporal discontinuity is another of the major theses of Stranger in a Strange Land….
[This is] the Whorfian conclusion inevitable in the novel: the realities of time, space, and matter are almost totally dependent upon the verbal system one uses to speak of time, space, and matter. When we learn to think in another language, our entire perception of reality changes. What is more important, reality itself changes. Grok?
Accomplished literary craftsman that he is, Heinlein skillfully utilizes almost every technique to communicate his ideas. One specific device is Mike Smith's constant use of the participle or progressive verb form to indicate the eternal present of the Martian now. "I am been saying so." "We are growing closer." "I am savoring and cherishing." Further examples could be multiplied, but only one more need be cited. It is used so often in the novel that it becomes almost a ritualistic theme song: "Waiting is." Not "Waiting is necessary," or "Waiting is important," or "Waiting is inevitable." Simply, "Waiting is." The phrase, a curious juxtaposition of tense forms, implies that one will wait, until eternity if necessary, before grokking in fullness.
In one of the most moving parts of the novel, Mike comes to understand that merely speaking about love is meaningless. If all that groks is God, Mike must demonstrate this truth, not simply repeat it….
[This] is not the place to note the number of Christian parallels in Stranger in a Strange Land, nor to evaluate if they are wholly successful. From a standpoint of linguistic relativity, however, similarities of Martian grokking and English thought find a union in Mike's last benediction as he is being stoned to death. He says in a striking parallelism with the Crucifixion, "I'm ready to show them now—I grok the fullness. Waiting is ended"….
Implicit in this Martian-Terran-Christian-Buddhist-Hindu benediction is the ultimate concept that "Love," however extrapolated from whatever widely divergent culture, will find an identity of expression. Many anthropological linguists will find this thesis highly debatable. In fact, the identity of expression seems to contradict the thrust of the novel: that a language "map" will alter reality—any reality, including that of love.
The appeal of Stranger in a Strange Land is not limited to its intriguing development of Martian thought, or even to its more than adequate descriptions of the "growing closer" ceremony. The sugar-coated, over-simplistic romanticism of the story has become almost a cult in certain areas of the country….
There is no doubt that the sense of alienation or anomie which troubles the flower children has caused many of them to turn to Stranger, as the cult calls it, with the same emotion that causes them to wear buttons reading "Frodo Lives" or "Go, Go, Gandalf!" Heinlein is almost Swiftian in his attack on some of the same American folkways that the hippies reject. His analysis of the hypocrisies of religion, politics, economics, and, explicitly, the Protestant ethic, seems to supplement the strictures which the flower children themselves maintain against our society. Whether grokking is an adequate substitute for involvement or commitment is conjectural, but a certain vociferous element in our society has seized upon it as a way of life. Fiction has become reality.
Stranger in a Strange Land may not be a great novel. Perhaps science fiction has yet to produce one. Yet when a writer skillfully combines the varied themes of any work as well as Heinlein has done, science fiction has at least come of age. (p. 5)
Willis E. McNelly, "Linguistic Relativity in Middle High Martian," in The CEA Critic (copyright © 1968 by The College English Association, Inc.), March, 1968, pp. 4-5.
Heinlein assumes that technology will continue to develop and thereby change society. The cosmos is infinite. With increased scientific knowledge man may roam the universe and even the fourth dimension. Unlike many science fiction writers who express an uncritical faith in technology or, like C. S. Lewis, who express a distrust of materialism and science, Heinlein's view shows more balance. He recognizes that technology may threaten the existence of independence and individual integrity, but … he expresses a belief in the individual's ability to cope with strange conditions and to act in an independent, non-deterministic fashion. The portrayal of modern man's ability to shape his own destiny accounts in large part for Heinlein's continued popularity since this view is expressed concretely through fast-moving action and appealing situations. (p. 33)
Diane Parkin Speer, "Heinlein's 'The Door into Summer' and 'Roderick Random'," in Extrapolation, December, 1970, pp. 30-3.
Although circumstance made him temporarily a sort of guru, Heinlein is best as a teller of fairly straightforward adventure stories. He has a gift for believable, concrete detail and he knows how to stretch suspense to its proper length, two gifts that do not quite add up to a blinding glimpse of hidden realities but can be parlayed into enjoyable reading. Starman Jones is good, average Heinlein adventure; The Past Through Tomorrow is both better and worse: a massive collection of short stories, novelettes and one novel Methuselah's Children mostly written in the '40s and each adding its mosaic bit to the fragmentary but consistent "history of the future" which has been a framework for much of his work. (p. 4)
Joseph McLellan, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 11, 1975.