Robert Heinlein Heinlein, Robert (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Dennis E. Showalter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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George Edgar Slusser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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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Ivor A. Rogers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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Elizabeth Anne Hull

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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