Robert Heinlein Critical Essays


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

The Man Who Sold the Moon 1950

Waldo and Magic, Inc. 1950

The Green Hills of Earth 1951

Universe 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


(The entire section is 269 words.)

George Edgar Slusser (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 17138 words.)

Alice Carol Gaar (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8172 words.)

Ronald Sarti (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12530 words.)

Frank H. Tucker (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 9231 words.)

H. Bruce Franklin (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14860 words.)

Gary K. Wolfe (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5283 words.)

George Slusser (essay date November 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 824 words.)

George Slusser (essay date summer 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 8480 words.)

Rafeeq O. McGiveron (essay date July 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

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.

(Past 373)

Despite his apparent dismissal of “the harsh bright soil of Luna” and the jungles of a pulp-fiction Venus...

(The entire section is 3976 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 230 words.)