Robert A. Heinlein Robert A. Heinlein American Literature Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download Robert A. Heinlein Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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...

(The entire section is 5,911 words.)