Robert A. Heinlein Critical Essays

Robert A. Heinlein American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The hard science underlying Heinlein’s fiction is more that of the engineer than of the researcher or theoretical scientist. Many science-fiction writers show the gadgets and institutions of a possible future; Heinlein shows how they work. It is his skill in integrating scientific explanation with the dialogue and plot of his stories that makes him one of the most reknowned science-fiction writers.

Paradoxically, however, this “hard science,” nuts-and-bolts science-fiction writer introduced the term “speculative fiction” as a wider-ranging name for his field, in order to include nonscientific fantasy. In his fiction, Heinlein bridges the gap between pure science and pure fantasy by offering the incredible “magic” of fantasy fiction but providing plausible scientific explanations. For example, one finds a fire-breathing dragon in Glory Road (1963), yet when the hero laments the reek of the flammable ketones in the dragon’s breath, the reader must admit that it is possible to ignite the by-products of digestion.

Further, in The Number of the Beast, one encounters denizens of the Land of Oz and other fictional characters, but their “real” existence is attributed to the nature of infinity. Although Heinlein’s purpose in that novel is satirical, he makes it clear that a ship which can travel through space and time can follow an infinite number of time lines, making all worlds accessible.

As popular as Heinlein is, some readers have criticized what they have perceived as a didactic or moralizing tone. Some reject Heinlein on these grounds for being too “preachy”; others embrace him as their spiritual father for the same quality. Whatever the reader’s reaction, definite moral values are implicit in virtually every Heinlein novel. Yet even morality is given a scientific basis. In Starship Troopers, Heinlein presented “the first scientific theory of morals,” which he articulated in his own voice in a 1973 lecture at Annapolis, later published in his collection Expanded Universe (1980). Defining moral behavior as “behavior that tends toward survival,” Heinlein makes it an aspect of evolution: “Evolution is a process that never stops. Baboons who fail to exhibit moral behavior do not survive; they wind up as meat for leopards. Every baboon generation has to pass this examination in moral behavior; those who bilge it don’t have progeny.” Placing the welfare of one’s tribe before one’s own is moral behavior, but it also ensures the survival of the tribe, even at the cost of the individual’s life.

The emphasis on moral teaching in Heinlein’s fiction is appropriate for his juvenile series for Scribner’s (1947-1958). Each of the novels has a young protagonist who learns an important lesson about growing up, usually related to his or her responsibility to other people. In Space Cadet, for example, an early exploration of themes developed in Starship Troopers, recruits in the Space Academy learn diplomacy in making contact with another race on Venus. In Between Planets, a youth with dual planetary citizenship must choose sides in a war between Venus colonials and Earth. In Starman Jones, a boy who rises to the top in the space voyagers’ hierarchy has to decide whether to reveal the lie that helped get him there.

In all the juvenile novels, a vital decision made by the young hero, usually affecting the fate of a great number of people, is the turning point of the plot. The decision invariably marks the first step toward adulthood for the protagonist. Adulthood, in Heinlein’s moral framework outlined above, consists in making decisions based on the good of the group rather than one’s personal needs. The group may be as small as the family unit, as in The Rolling Stones, in which an interplanetary freighter is run by an adventurous family, or Farmer in the Sky, in which a teenage boy battles to save his family’s homestead on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. At the other extreme, the group for whom the protagonists of The Star Beast and Have Space Suit—Will Travel sacrifice is the entire human race.

Although Heinlein has a reputation for moral conservatism on civic issues, he has been accused of (or praised for) expressing liberal views of sex and religion. In terms of religion, the charge is unjust: The ethic usually presented in his fiction is simply religious tolerance. In fact, what is remarkable about Heinlein’s view of the future is that religions will not be snuffed by the advance of science but will take on many new forms. The Martian-raised protagonist of Stranger in a Strange Land becomes the messiah for a new sect and invests it with Martian religious ideas. The hero of Job: A Comedy of Justice is a fundamentalist minister who falls in love with a Scandinavian woman who worships the Norse gods.

Even Heinlein’s supposedly licentious treatment of sex in his fiction is a direct result of his “future history” approach—projecting the realities, both scientific and social, of the possible worlds to come. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein explains line and clan marriages that exist on the moon, where women are scarce and are shared among several husbands. In Time Enough for Love, every imaginable family and sexual arrangement is described over Lazarus Long’s thousand-year life span; the same aspects of his mother’s long life are explored in Heinlein’s last novel. Yet, although Heinlein wrote increasingly about sex after 1961, he was never explicit in wording or description.

Red Planet

First published: 1949

Type of work: Novel

A young man, with the help of his Martian “pet,” thwarts a plot against the Martian colonists.

The third of Heinlein’s juvenile novels, Red Planet was his first story to describe the Martian culture to which he would return in Stranger in a Strange Land. The main Martian character, however, is not the adult biped described in that book but a bouncy, spherical nymph named Willis. Willis is kept as a pet by a human colonist named Jim Marlowe, who is unaware that Willis belongs to the same race as the tall, silent, dominant species who built the ancient Martian cities.

As the story begins, Jim and his friend Frank Sutton enter college at Lowell Academy (Heinlein’s tribute to the nineteenth century astronomer Percival Lowell). Jim goes against the wishes of his parents—and, as it turns out, the rules of the college—by bringing his “pet,” Willis, to school. Willis is a Martian roundhead, a hairy sphere about the size of a billiard ball, who can imitate any sound and has learned enough English to converse with Jim and his friends. More important, Willis’s familiarity with the adult Martians makes him an intercessor on behalf of the Earth colonists.

When the college authorities confiscate Willis, Jim faces a dilemma. He was raised to respect authority, yet in this case he believes that the authority is wrong. Furthermore, Willis’s abilities as a sort of Martian tape recorder reveal to Jim a plot by the Earth company that runs the colony to cancel the migration, thereby forcing the colonists to face the deadly Martian winter—and making room for more immigrants (and greater profit for the company). The colonists, warned by Jim and backed by the Martian elders whom Jim and Frank befriend through the mischievous Willis, storm the company offices and force the bureaucrats to reinstate the migration.

The “revolution” of the colonists is a larger version of the coming-of-age theme in Jim’s character. Just as Jim learns in the course of the novel to make mature decisions for himself, away from his parents, so the colony must become independent from its earthly “parent.” There is even a further variation on the theme in the character of Willis: Willis is a “nymph,” an earlier stage in development from the mysterious Martian elders whom Jim and Frank meet. Willis will metamorphose into an adult Martian; Jim will become an independent, mature man; the colony will become an independent political entity.

The science in Red Planet is outdated, yet the novel illustrates Heinlein’s contention that science fiction is not ruined when science catches up with it. “Updating can’t save a poor story,” he said in Expanded Universe, “and it isn’t necessary for a good one. All of H. G. Wells’ [science-fiction] stories are hopelessly dated . . . and they remain the best, the most gripping science fiction stories to be found anywhere.” For example, Heinlein’s premise of a southern-hemisphere Martian colony farming by the water melted from the ice cap each spring (a seasonal phenomenon observed by telescope) fell apart when satellite analysis revealed the poles to be frozen carbon dioxide, not frozen water. Nevertheless, the basic picture of a colony dependent on Earth remains valid.

Another bit of science in Red Planet illustrates Heinlein’s confidence in technology’s ability to help humans survive in hostile environments. Many science-fiction writers have been reluctant to base future colonies on Mars because of the scarcity of oxygen in its atmosphere. Yet Heinlein points out that there almost certainly is oxygen on Mars—not in the atmosphere but in oxide compounds in the soil. Jim’s father in Red Planet is involved in a massive project to release the oxygen locked in the Martian soil and pump it into the air, making Mars more habitable to humankind. Human beings will survive in space, Heinlein insists, not only by adapting to harsh environments but also by adapting the environments themselves.

The minor conflict that opens the story—Jim’s reluctance to give up Willis—returns at the end as a difficult reality Jim must face in coming of age. In negotiations with the Martians, it becomes necessary for Jim to return Willis to his own people so that he can metamorphose into an adult Martian. The novel ends at that turning point, but Willis’s projected physical transformation is a reflection of Jim’s less tangible passage into manhood, which is, in turn, a reflection of the colony’s coming-of-age.

Doc MacRae, the colony’s physician and Jim’s friend and mentor, comments on Jim’s loss of Willis in the closing lines of the book: “He’ll get over it. Probably he’ll find another bouncer and teach him English and call him Willis, too. Then he’ll grow up and not make pets of bouncers.” MacRae is one of many mentor types in Heinlein’s juveniles, though the type appears in the adult fiction also. He is an adult who represents the values of the adult society yet sympathizes with the boys. Jim and Frank talk with Doc more freely than with their parents.

Red Planet is a classic initiation or coming-of-age story. Jack Williamson, Heinlein’s friend and fellow writer, considered it the first artistic success of the Scribner’s juvenile series. Teenagers can readily identify with the protagonist, Jim Marlowe, but the most memorable character is the scene-stealing Martian nymph Willis, who is one of the most enjoyable and fully realized alien characters in science fiction. “Here, for the first time,” says Williamson, “Heinlein is making the most of his aliens.” Willis makes the book worth reading.

Citizen of the Galaxy

First published: 1957

Type of work: Novel

A boy who begins life as a slave inherits a fortune and works to crush the interplanetary slave trade.

The Scribner’s juvenile series took a giant leap in a new direction with Citizen of the Galaxy. Though the protagonist is a boy who comes of age in the novel, the point of view is much more adult (it was the only one of the juveniles to be serialized in Astounding Science Fiction), and the locale, for the first time in the series, is outside the earth’s solar system. The world in which Thorby, the main character, grows up is much darker than any previously seen in Heinlein’s fiction. The reader first sees Thorby in the dirty, decadent, savage streets of the spaceport Jubbulpore; he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. When the story opens, he is on the auction block again, so thin and scarred that no one but a dirty beggar offers to buy him.

The beggar, Baslim the Cripple, is one of Heinlein’s most fascinating characters. Though a beggar, he and the hole in which he lives have unexpected resources. He turns out to be a secret agent of the Exotic Corps, an interplanetary police force combating slavery. He begins to train Thorby in his trade, without telling the boy about the “X-Corps.” Baslim is killed by powerful enemies before Thorby can learn his secret.

Following Baslim’s orders, given to him under hypnosis before Baslim’s death, Thorby seeks out Captain Krausa of the spaceship Sisu. Krausa adopts him into “The Free Traders,” a race of space gypsies who travel the galaxy, buying and selling. Thorby adapts to this strange new culture with the help of an anthropologist traveling with the ship, who explains the ways of these people who spend their entire lives in a city-sized ship, the Sisu. Just when Thorby gets accustomed to the nomadic life, however, he discovers where he came from before he was kidnapped, and he is returned “home”—to Earth. Further, he discovers that he is “Rudbek of Rudbek,” heir to a vast fortune and head of an international conglomerate that makes him the most powerful individual on Earth. Ironically, his company is behind the very slave trade that victimized him.

This is not a rags-to-riches cliché, and the story is not over. Wealth isolates Thorby, and powerful men who know more about the treachery of international trade attempt to keep him from finding out too much about his own company—about shady operations such as the slave trade, for example. Thorby fights back, with the help of a young woman who seems intent on marrying him. They win, but Thorby is not ready for a family. Instead, he enlists in Baslim’s Exotic Corps to continue the fight against intergalactic slavery.

The key to understanding the major theme of Citizen of the Galaxy, and of the juvenile series as a whole, is in the title. Each stage of...

(The entire section is 5911 words.)