Robert A. Heinlein Heinlein, Robert A(nson) (Vol. 3) - Essay

Heinlein, Robert A(nson) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Heinlein, Robert A(nson) 1907–

Heinlein, an American science fiction writer, is one of the writers responsible for the maturation of that genre. He has written for both children and adults and some of his work, notably Stranger in a Strange Land, is recognized as having serious literary intentions. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Robert A. Heinlein has that attribute which the mathematician Hermann Weyl calls "the inexhaustibility of real things": whatever you say about him, I find, turns out to be only partly true. If you point to his innate conservatism, as evidenced in the old-time finance of "The Man Who Sold the Moon," you may feel smug for as much as a minute, until you remember the rampantly radical monetary system of Beyond This Horizon….

With due caution, then, let me say that in art, at least, Heinlein seems to be as conservative as they come. He believes in a plain tale well told. Although he fancies his own Yukon-style verses, or used to, he has no patience with poetry-in-a-garret. The people he writes about are healthy, uninhibited and positive, a totally different breed from the neurasthenic heroes of many of his colleagues. In a field whose most brilliant and well-established writers seem to flip sooner or later, Heinlein is preeminently sane….

Heinlein's greatest asset, I think, is [the] same perennial hero—essentially he's Heinlein himself, and Heinlein likes himself. This is a thing so rare in writers-by-necessity, who are insecure, self-critical men, that every now and then a writer-by-accident who has it, as Mark Twain did, cheerfully walks away with all the prizes in sight….

Heinlein's style, which I admire, is a flexible and efficient instrument, but so simple and conversational that it makes you think of Heinlein's work as a simple, standardized product, and of Heinlein himself as a simple, standardized man.

In reality, there are several Heinleins. One of them is a 19th century rationalist and skeptic, who believes in nothing he can't see, touch, and preferably measure with calipers. Another is a mystic, who strongly believes in the existence of something beyond the world of the senses, and keeps an open mind even toward the ragtag and bobtail of mystical ideas, flying saucers and Bridey Murphy.

Damon Knight, "One Sane Man: Robert A. Heinlein," in his In Search of Wonder: Critical Essays on Science Fiction (reprinted by courtesy of Advent:Publishers, Inc.), Advent, second edition, 1967, pp. 76-89.

It is regularly taken as a given these days that Robert Heinlein has been a major influence on the science fiction field. Jack Williamson, for instance, says "the first name in contemporary science fiction"; Willy Ley says "the standard"; Judith Merril says "there are few of us writing today who do not owe much early stimulus to him."

The point I'm discussing is not popularity. Popularity has nothing to do with the influence of a writer, though it may reflect it. Influence is impact on other writers. Heinlein's impact has come directly from the work that he was doing between 1939 and 1942. Since then, Heinlein has refined his techniques, and so, in their own ways, have those touched by him, but I believe that the influence would not have been greatly different if Heinlein had not written another word from 1942 to the present….

The influence and copying I am talking about are not an attempt to duplicate Heinlein's tone, his phrasing, his situations, his plots or his attitude. They are not an attempt to sound like Heinlein (which could be most easily done, I think, by copying his folksy, metaphorical dialogue). They are, actually, the adoption of a superior technique for writing readable and solidly-constructed science fiction in the same manner that newly invented techniques have been adopted in recent years in swimming, shell racing and shot putting. If a better way is found, it is naturally seized upon. Heinlein has introduced a number of ideas into science fiction, but the importance of this is comparatively minor since only so many changes can be rung on any one idea, while the range of use of a narrative technique is a good deal greater. (pp. 13-14)

The Puppet Masters … is the most ambitious of the three specifically adult novels that Heinlein wrote between Beyond This Horizon in 1942 and Stranger in a Strange Land in 1961. As a story it is both typical and atypical of Heinlein. It shares with Between Planets the very common Heinlein theme of preserving liberty. However, it is one of the very few Heinlein stories that are aimed at the viscera rather than at the intellect. The liberty that Heinlein aims to preserve is freedom to use one's own mind, and he means us to feel his case as well as merely understand it. (p. 61)

Heinlein's greatest weakness has probably been his story construction. His very earliest stories were badly engineered—an odd criticism to make of an engineer—and even in Citizen of the Galaxy you have an example of a story whose parts don't hang together closely. On the other hand, Have Space Suit—Will Travel is put together amazingly well. It is pure magic. (p. 84)

From the time that he began to write in 1939, one of the hallmarks of Robert Heinlein's writing has been his concern with facts. He doesn't just like facts, he relishes them, and he sprinkles them through his stories with a liberal hand by means of dialogue, demonstration, and if all else fails, omniscient exposition. There is a very tender line beyond which factual lectures become tedious irrelevancies in fiction, and Heinlein has occasionally come close to this line, but if there is anything that is amazing about his writing it has been his ability to write for, say, ten pages, as he does on space suits in Have Space Suit—Will Travel, without losing or even seriously slowing his story.

If there is one thing that marks the six novels published so far in Heinlein's third period [1959–67], it is a change in those things he has lectured about in his stories. Instead of concerning himself with facts, he has written about the morality of sex, religion, war and politics, but he has treated his opinions as though they were facts. More than this, he has so concentrated on presenting his opinions with every narrative device he knows that he has neglected story construction, characterization, and plot as though they were completely subsidiary to the main business of his opinions-as-facts. (p. 89)

Heinlein's most ambitious attempt to create a context is his Future History …, a body of work that taken as a whole some people consider his most important. In essence, what Heinlein did was to give a detailed picture of the next two hundred years and a sketchier picture of five hundred years more. This is an amazing and ambitious undertaking involving twenty stories written and rewritten over more than twenty years. Other writers—such as H. Beam Piper, James Blish, Poul Anderson, and Isaac Asimov—have attempted similarly detailed futures in the years since Heinlein began his, and I think that most of them owe credit to Heinlein for scouting the territory for them.

The Future History does not actually form a complete whole. It was not planned as a unit in advance, and it belongs primarily to Heinlein's adolescence as a writer. It was assembled by compromise, chopping, and rewriting. The result is that the individual pieces stand up well enough by themselves while the Future History they supposedly form does not. (pp. 121-22)

By the end of 1941, every story which takes place after 2070 in the Future History had been published. These cover the revolt against religious tyranny, the new constitution, the breaking of the constitution, and the exploration of the stars: the stories that appear in Revolt in 2100, Methuselah's Children, and Orphans of the Sky. They do form a whole, except for "Misfit," and I suspect were conceived as a group.

The stories that are set before 2010, on the other hand, do not form a whole and do not really connect with the stories on the other side of the gap. Heinlein continued to add stories to this front part of the Future History until 1962, but he never attempted to bridge the sixty years between 2010 and 2070…. This gap is one of the two things that reveal the improvised nature of the Future History. The other is the visible chopping and fitting that was carried out through the years. (p. 123)

Heinlein's characterization has not shown the variety that his contexts have, but in a way this makes very good sense. Basically, Heinlein has used the same general characters in story after story, and has kept these characters limited ones. There is, however, a distinct difference between limitation in characterization and unconvincing characterization. One is neutral and the other is negative, and Heinlein's characterization has always been more neutral than anything else….

Instead of describing them or giving them different speech patterns, Heinlein has generally differentiated his characters in terms of action and dialogue, what they do and what they say. For the most part, his most striking characters come from his earliest period of writing when he did allow himself a certain amount of latitude: Joe-Jim Gregory, the two-headed mutant in Orphans of the Sky, for instance, and Harriman, and Waldo, and Lazarus Long. These stand out, however, more for what and who they are than for any great individuality in personality. More recently, there are Hazel Stone and Mr. Kiku, but it is their positions in their stories that make them stand out, rather than their unique natures. By and large, the most truly individual of Heinlein's characters have been the various aliens that have populated a number of his juvenile novels…. (pp. 127-28)

Heinlein relies heavily on clever phrasing to carry his stories. He has an ear for brisk, bright metaphor. In his early writing, this brightness appeared more in narrative than in dialogue…. Heinlein does not have a particularly acute ear for individualities of speech—his characters have always sounded very much alike. In his early stories, at most one character was blessed with the ability to speak in brisk, bright, clever metaphor. The rest spoke a simple, utilitarian English. (p. 144)

Sheer continued existence seems to be something that is tremendously important to Heinlein, and a guarantee of it a necessary reassurance. His character Hamilton Felix in Beyond This Horizon, for instance, takes the promise of life after death in the form of reincarnation as the only thing that gives life any point. The form of continued existence does vary, however, from one story to the next. (pp. 172-73)

[Admitting] the possibility of death of a sort, Heinlein has mitigated it in several ways. Ghosts are one way—they linger on and in lingering deny the finality of death. The only flaw is that the power of the ghost to influence things through his continued existence is severely limited, so when Heinlein has introduced ghosts, they have been Martian ghosts (in Red Planet and Stranger in a Strange Land) rather than human ones.

Another way Heinlein has found of mitigating death is reincarnation, which, of course, does allow for effective action beyond death and so is suitable for Heinlein Individuals. Heinlein makes reincarnation an important minor thread of Beyond This Horizon, but his use of it in Stranger in a Strange Land is more revealing: in that story Martians become ghosts but human worthies are reincarnated.

As important as this denial of the reality of death is, however, just as important is a denial of the reality of the world, the only thing that can make the first denial meaningful. It is by his singular ability to transcend the bounds of the world that the Heinlein Individual demonstrates his difference from other humans. (pp. 173-74)

[Heinlein believes] that most of [science fiction] is not very good as literature, partly because it is the most difficult sort of prose to write, and that much of it is not even entertaining—… points that seem to have a large measure of truth to them.

On the other hand, Heinlein finds science fiction the most alive, most important, most useful and most comprehensive fiction being written today. He finds its importance in its attempt to deal with the future, that being the only point of time we can affect at all. The difficulty in writing science fiction is in the body of knowledge it requires and the amount of directed imagination it takes, but since it does deal with change, the most important fact of our world, it is the only form of fiction that has any chance of interpreting our world. He concludes by saying that science fiction will never be mass entertainment, but that it should increase in amount and quality. (pp. 180-81)

It is clear right now that even if his career were to be over, Heinlein would retain a historical place in company with Wells and Stapledon. Awards would be named after him, his name would be cited, and his health would be drunk. This historical position has two bases.

The first of these is the story-telling techniques that Heinlein developed and that have been generally copied within the field. It is these, I think, that caused de Camp's eighteen leading writers in 1953 to name Heinlein as the only contemporary science fiction writer who had influenced them. I can't help but believe that a similar poll taken today would again acknowledge Heinlein's influence….

The last twenty-five years of science fiction may even be taken in large part as an exploration by many writers of the possibilities inherent in Heinlein's techniques…. Heinlein's insistence in talking clearly, knowledgeably, and dramatically about the real world destroyed forever the sweet, pure, wonderful innocence that science fiction once had. However, it cost it none of its range of possibility, and in fact, even extended its range. It simply killed innocence. In a sense, Heinlein may be said to have offered science fiction a road to adulthood. (p. 189)

Robert Heinlein is the one science fiction writer who has regularly dealt with the strange-but-normal. Most often this has been in terms of chapters, or in short stories. Occasionally, as in Farmer in the Sky, it has been in whole books. He may not have taken this sort of story as far as it can go, but he has made possible those first-rate stories on this model that are yet to be written. If there is as much potential in this vein as I believe, it is added reason to honor Heinlein's name. (p. 190)

If science fiction does eventually attract serious consideration, then necessarily so will Heinlein. Heinlein is bound inextricably with science fiction, but the bonds are just as clear the other way: Heinlein is a dominating figure in science fiction.

I would not be surprised to see Heinlein's reputation come eventually to resemble that of Kipling. I am far from the first to notice their similarities. Their temperaments seem similar. Their attitudes toward life seem similar. I think their reputations may come to be similar, too, specifically in two regards. I think English letters will grant both small, secure places. I think that security will be increased by the fact that unlike many important writers of the past—including some of greater importance than either Kipling or Heinlein—both men will continue to be read, and by a similar audience. (p. 191)

Alexei Panshin, in his Heinlein in Dimension: A Critical Analysis (reprinted by courtesy of Advent:Publishers, Inc.), Advent, 1968.

Any examination of science fiction would be incomplete without a visit with that lusty veteran Robert A. Heinlein. His book Stranger in a Strange Land has become something of a bible to some within that diverse movement variously referred to as the New Left or the hippies. Stranger is the story of a man born and orphaned on Mars and raised by Martians, who is found and brought back to earth. His Martian upbringing has left him with extraordinary telepathic abilities; he can read thoughts, leave his body, and control matter. On earth he forms a "religion," or movement, which includes instruction in the Martian language and these same telepathic powers. Martian is much more logical than any earth language, and contains structures and thought forms which make the learning of telepathy possible. His followers gather in communes or "nests"—ten or fifteen people living together in a close-knit, sexually free-flowing, family relationship….

As with so many other sf writers, Heinlein is concerned about man's flawed powers of communication. Language itself is illogical and awkward, forcing man to espouse ideas which are less than what they should be. In both Stranger and an earlier short story, "Gulf," a new streamlined (but also richer) language must be learned before history can be changed for the better. In a later book, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, a genial computer takes over the thought-communication process and plans and organizes a complete revolution. Although the human thought-communication process is flawed, Heinlein implies that we, or at least some of us, have it in our power to do something about it. Hopefully, too, telepathic powers would emerge to facilitate the process.

Another related Heinlein theme concerns the need for more satisfying, flexible family structures. We have the example of the "nest" in Stranger. A more intriguing one, which takes into account growing children of various ages, is the "line marriage" found in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Here several men and women of various ages live together as a family; as older ones die, younger ones are taken in. Children leave the family when of marriageable age to join other lines. In this way it differs from the patriarchal or matriarchal extended families as well as from the familiar atomistic family of our own suburban day….

In Heinlein we find an objectification of the Deuteronomic notion—a power is erected which executes judgment in the here and now. The "better dead" list is an interesting reminder of the "omnipotence" which some men have possessed in the past and, indeed, possess in our time. Of course, what Heinlein is seeking to solve is the problem of evil within history, and the theory he advances is merely a variation on the quite respectable thought of such Cold War philosophers as Columbia University's Zbigniew Brzezinski. Society must be managed by a new class; misfits must be controlled; dissidents must be eliminated. Ironically, there are also links between Heinlein's thought and the covenant concept which formed the essential dynamic of American Puritanism, the first generation of which constituted a theocracy. Banishment was one Puritan means of quelling dissent….

The author asks whether man as presently constituted can make it—whether he can move beyond the present into a future without the formidable evils of our own time. And his reason forces him to an elitist solution. There are already those among us whose intelligence and superior will make them the natural guardians of man and his future. They must be given power soon, or we face a series of totalitarian repressions (presumably aimed at the Heinlein elite as well as other nonconformists). How tempting are such notions! We are less honest than Heinlein if we deny their basic appeal. If only we (people like us!) could take over, we could run the world so much better….

Heinlein emerges as science fiction's Ayn Rand, only her industrialists are replaced by his scientists, telepaths, and scrappy computer mechanics. But again a caution. Heinlein has suggested a very real possibility, redemptive or chilling depending on your point of view or, rather, your exposure to the world as it is. In a time of increasing human capacity for the creation of chaos (official, unofficial), the question of who calls the shots is of critical importance. Or at least that is what we tend to believe….

It is interesting that Heinlein has anticipated the hippie movement in Stranger in a Strange Land. The irony is that "love children" can be just as judgmental in their basic perspective as any other self-styled elites. What is lacking in Heinlein and in elitist thought generally is a standard of justice which applies equally to the high and the low—to all men. Even if such a standard cannot be legislated, it is a necessary antidote to the perversions of elitist totalitarianism.

Lois and Stephen Rose, in their The Shattered Ring: Science Fiction and the Quest for Meaning (© 1970 by M. E. Bratcher; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox Press, 1970, pp. 48-53.

The publication of Stranger in a Strange Land marked a drastic shift in Heinlein's writing, at least in social criticism and controversial subject matter. Theodore Sturgeon remarks in the New York Times Magazine that up till 1961 Heinlein's works "contain rather less objectionable material than the Rev. Bowdler would have been able to find had he been equipped with an electron microscope." He concludes though, that Stranger "is not for kiddies." Whether or not Stranger should be read by youngsters is a personal judgment, but many parents would feel uneasy themselves concerning Heinlein's irreverent, satiric swipes at almost every sacred value held by Western society in general and America in particular. Stranger takes a caustic look at everything from "true confession" magazines to democracy, but in particular Heinlein is concerned with exposing and undermining stifling sexual mores and repressive religion. In this exposé Heinlein portrays the beginning of the twenty-first century as much the same as the last of the twentieth, but what he feels to be negative tendencies are accelerated….

Along with using science fiction's distinctive approaches for social criticism, Stranger also contains [another] element essential to good science fiction: high entertainment value. An evaluation of whether or not a particular work is entertaining is a highly subjective process, but Stranger contains the elements needed for a novel to be enjoyable. Most importantly, Stranger has an easily followed plot consisting of the story of Mike's arrival on earth as an innocent, the experiences that form his character and actions, and the events that culminate in his death. The specific incidents vary in tone and substance from crude slapstick to exciting melodrama to moving pathos. The characters are either people the reader would like to spend some time with or individuals the reader can have some enjoyable moments hating. Heinlein drew his characters full-size and with easily recognizable faults and virtues.

Ronald Lee Cansler, "Stranger in a Strange Land: Science Fiction as Literature of Creative Imagination, Social Criticism, and Entertainment," in Journal of Popular Culture, Spring, 1972, pp. 944-54.

The one author who has raised science fiction from the gutter status of pulp space opera (still practiced by Hollywood) to the altitude of original and breathtaking concepts is Robert A. Heinlein. And there is no doubt that his latest novel, "Time Enough For Love" …, an enormous work covering the next 24 centuries, played on nine planets, with several hundred vivid characters, will evoke the same reaction that his 30-odd previous books have; a curious combination of admiration, awe, shock, hatred and fascination.

For Heinlein is a delightful paradox, and the contrasts of his character show in his splendid, challenging and sometimes infuriating writing. One thing is certain: Heinlein … will never bore you, in life or on the page.

Alfred Bester, in Publisher's Weekly (reprinted from July 2, 1973, issue of Publisher's Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1973 by Xerox Corporation), July 2, 1973, pp. 44-5.

If Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land … is not the longest single science fiction novel of the last three decades, at least it has very few peers. Yet despite its length, it seems crowded, and for good reason: it is about everything. In the course of unfolding the plot—which is itself very rich in incident—Heinlein explores politics, aesthetics, ethics, morals, theology, the occult, history, economics, a double handful of sciences, and a whole hatful of subsidiary matters. The result is not only impossible to do justice to in a review, but almost impossible to describe or characterize….

No communicant to a currently established religion is likely to think it anything but blasphemous, but its dominant subject is religion, and its intellectual offerings and innovations are primarily religious too. The sex, the politics, the sciences, the action, all are essentially contributory; the religious material is central. The religion is a synthetic one, of which Smith [a Martian] is the Messiah (or perhaps only the prophet), and the main task of the novel is to show it as sane, desirable and exalting—in contrast to both the systems of large established orders such as Islam and traditional Christianity (toward all of which Heinlein is sympathetic and apparently well informed) and those of highly commercial enterprises like the California nut-cults (some features of which, with Smith's Martian assistance, he also manages to view with at least moderate tolerance).

Heinlein-Smith's eclectic religion is a fascinating potpourri, amazingly complicated to have come from a single brain rather than from centuries of accumulated haggling and hagiography; it contains something for everybody, or bravely gives that appearance, though by the same token it contains something repulsive for everybody too.

William Atheling, Jr., in his The Issue at Hand (reprinted by courtesy of Advent:Publishers, Inc.), Advent, 2nd edition, 1973, pp. 68, 70.