Robert A. Heinlein Biography

Robert A. Heinlein, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, is part of the “holy trinity” of science fiction writing. Heinlein is particularly noted for his skill at mixing hard science with fictional elements. He also uses the genre to explore a variety of socio-political issues, though many critics disagree as to exactly what his beliefs and politics were. Heinlein’s early works bear the influence of his socialist beginnings, yet others such as his novel Starship Troopers can be read as right-wing and even fascistic propaganda. And countering both of those positions are his countless works that explore radically liberal ideas of gender, race, and sexuality. Part of what made Heinlein so unique was the way he eschewed categorization and defied expectations.

Facts and Trivia

  • Heinlein’s forward-thinking novel Stranger in a Strange Land proved to have major social influence beyond the world of science fiction. The book introduced the notion of polyamorous relationships—that is to say, romantic relationships among more than two people.
  • As a young man, Heinlein became heavily involved in Upton Sinclair’s leftist social concerns and unsuccessful campaigns for elected office. At one point, Heinlein himself tried to run for office but was defeated.
  • Among Heinlein’s more unusual contributions to the world is the water bed, an idea he came up with during one of his many hospitalizations.
  • Grumbles from the Grave is a collection of Heinlein’s personal writing that was published posthumously by his widow.
  • Heinlein won an astonishing seven Hugo Awards. Of those, three were awarded retroactively for key works from his lengthy career.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907, the son of Rex Ivar and Bam Lyle Heinlein. He was the third of seven children. After graduating from Kansas City Central High School in 1924, Heinlein enrolled at a branch campus of the University of Missouri near his home. His dream, however, was to follow his older brother Rex into the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. Having solicited some fifty letters of recommendation in his behalf, Heinlein won an appointment to the academy in 1925. Commissioned with the Navy class of 1929, Lieutenant Robert Heinlein would serve only five years (as gunnery officer on several ships, including the first modern aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington) before a diagnosis of tuberculosis gave him a mandatory medical discharge in 1934.

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For the next five years, Heinlein would try many occupations before becoming a writer. Pursuing graduate studies in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, he also dabbled in architecture, mining, real estate, and state politics in Colorado and California. None of these ventures paid off, and Heinlein found himself in 1939, at the age of thirty-two, broke, with a mortgage, and virtually unemployable. A short-story contest in the science-fiction magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories offered fifty dollars. Tempted by the prize, Heinlein wrote his first story, “Life Line,” and sold it to the top science fiction magazine, Astounding Science Fiction, for twenty dollars more than the contest prize.

The editor of Astounding Science Fiction, the influential John Campbell, liked the story and wanted more. Thus, quite by accident, Heinlein became a writer. By 1941, he was supplying one-fifth of the contents of the magazine—he produced so much that Campbell insisted on publishing half of Heinlein’s stories under a pseudonym, Anson MacDonald. Heinlein was also the most popular writer in the magazine: He tied with “MacDonald” (that is, with himself) for first place in the readers’ polls.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, Heinlein immediately reported to the Navy for wartime service. He was assigned to the U.S. Naval Air Experimental Station at Mustin Field in Philadelphia. Two other science-fiction writers trained by John Campbell were also there: Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Heinlein tested new plastic materials for aircraft and, with de Camp, developed the first pressure suits. One chemist and test engineer he met at Mustin Field would become a lifelong companion: Lt. Virginia Gerstenfeld, who became Mrs. Heinlein in 1948.

Although Heinlein would not write any fiction during the war, a backlog of his stories appeared through 1942, establishing what John Campbell called a “future history” series. Campbell had noticed that many of Heinlein’s stories had interrelated details, and that they all implied a coherent view of developments in coming centuries. Many writers would imitate this “future history” approach to science fiction, but it was Heinlein’s invention.

After the war, Heinlein returned to writing, determined to sell science fiction outside the pulp magazines. He did so in three significant ways. In 1947, he became the first science-fiction writer to write for mass-market magazines, publishing “Space Jockey” in The Saturday Evening Post. Second, in the same year, he was asked by Scribner’s to write a juvenile novel for hardcover publication—a rare occurrence in those days, when science fiction was almost always restricted to paperback books.

Heinlein, according to the contract with Scribner’s, produced a novel a year over the following decade: Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Space Cadet (1948), Red Planet (1949), Farmer in the Sky (1950), Between Planets (1951), The Rolling Stones (1952), Starman Jones (1953), The Star Beast (1954), Tunnel in the Sky (1955), Time for the Stars (1956), Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), and Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958). These novels, written for high-school readers, are often considered Heinlein’s best works. A third way in which Heinlein brought science fiction into the mainstream was with the 1950 film Destination Moon. Based on Heinlein’s script, this was the first Hollywood science-fiction film to attempt to create sets, actions, and dialogue that were scientifically accurate.

In 1955, the World Science Fiction Convention, a fan group, began giving an annual award (called a Hugo) for the year’s best science fiction. Heinlein had been the group’s guest of honor in 1941, and in 1956 his novel Double Star (1956) received a Hugo. He would win again in 1960 for Starship Troopers (1959), 1962 for Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and 1967 for The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966). The Science Fiction Writers of America, who present an equivalent award (the Nebula), never awarded one to a Heinlein novel, but in 1975 they honored Heinlein with their first Grand Master award for lifetime achievement in science fiction.

Heinlein’s second Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land, became the first work of science fiction to make The New York Times best-seller list. He would make the list again with Time Enough for Love (1973), The Number of the Beast (1980), Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985).

Heinlein suffered a near stroke in 1978. A year later, he testified before the House Committee on Science and Technology, pointing out that the technology that had helped save his life, and the lives of countless others, came from space research. A weak heart did not keep Heinlein from publishing regularly through the 1980’s. His last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987), appeared on his eightieth birthday. On May 8, 1988, Heinlein died of heart failure. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea with full military honors.

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