Robert A. Heinlein Heinlein, Robert A(nson) (Vol. 26) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert A(nson) Heinlein 1907–

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Anson MacDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, and Caleb Saunders) American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.

Heinlein has played a long and significant role in the evolution of science fiction into a more sophisticated genre. He began writing in the post-Depression science fiction magazine era when simplistic plots and farfetched gadgets were the norm. Heinlein's witty style and his use of social themes and realistic technology helped give rise to speculative science fiction, which emphasizes probable technological and societal developments projected into future worlds.

After World War II Heinlein wrote a series of novels aimed at juvenile audiences which some critics consider his best work. These books feature naive protagonists who, in the course of wild adventures, learn to be "competent" human beings. Like all his works, these novels advocate "survival of the most competent." Heinlein's reliance on social Darwinism has been a constant source of controversy among critics of his work. Heinlein's survivors are those who adopt a military-like discipline and outlook, and some novels, like Starship Troopers, glorify militaristic society. Although some critics find fault with Heinlein's rigid logic, almost all agree that his bold exploration of social themes actively challenges a reader's view of society and has helped elevate science fiction above escapist entertainment.

Heinlein is considered "the dean of science fiction writers." His Stranger in a Strange Land has maintained a cultlike popularity, and his recent works are still greeted with anticipation. Heinlein has won four Hugo Awards for his novels and a Grandmaster Award for overall achievement.

(See also Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 8, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1; Something about the Author, Vol. 9; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8.)

Creighton Peet

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Mr. Heinlein's cosmos, interplanetary rocket travel is old stuff. Earlier books got his characters to the moon and to stations parked in space. [In "Red Planet"] he describes colonial life on Mars some years after men from the earth have settled there. He even throws in a desperate revolt against dishonest agents of the operating company back on earth.

When Jim and Frank, sons of colonials go to boarding school they take Willis, a Martian called a bouncer, about the size and shape of a volley ball. A charming, friendly creature, Willis can record and play back long stretches of conversation. It is Willis who records the plotting of the crooked agents and thus starts the revolt. Before justice triumphs, the boys have many terrifying experiences skating endless miles down a Martian canal. They visit mysterious Martian cities deep underground and talk with even more mysterious natives.

Mr. Heinlein is so straightforward and matter of fact in recounting all this that it's pretty hard not to believe every word of it.

Creighton Peet, "Martian Adventure," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1949 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 23, 1949, p. 50.

Iris Vinton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

["The Star Beast" tells the story of] an octopod, six-ton, talking creature who was the very special pet of John Thomas Stuart XI of Westville, Planet Earth. One day, waiting for John and his friend Betty to fly home from school, Lummie began eating the neighbor's rosebushes. Mrs. Donahue drove him away with a broom and thereby started him on an innocently destructive tour of the town….

The small town clash … soon reached interstellar proportions, full of surprises.

Mr. Heinlein's name on a book of science fiction is sure to make young space-eaters reach for it, and this one, written with his usual deftness and fine sense of humor, will not disappoint them.

Iris Vinton, "Visitor From Outer Space," in The New York Times Book Review, Part II (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 14, 1954, p. 10.

H. H. Holmes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Regularly every year Robert A. Heinlein produces the best juvenile science fiction novel—and in so doing creates a work more maturely satisfying than 90 per cent of "adult" science fiction. "The Star Beast" … equals any of his previous books in lively adventure, and perhaps surpasses them in charm and in fullness of characterization (human and alien). The story of a boy and his pet always attracts readers; here the pet is a titanic but lovable monster from outer space, and the politics and even the future existence of Earth comes to hinge upon its identity and origin. The future civilization is developed with all the meticulous ingenuity one expects of Heinlein, but the emphasis is on individuals.

H. H. Holmes, in his review of "The Star Beast," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), November 28, 1954, p. 16.

H. H. Holmes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"In science-fiction circles," says Willy Ley on the jacket of Robert A. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky … "it has become customary to use Robert A. Heinlein as the standard; unfortunately for most writers, that standard is too high." I agree wholeheartedly—with the addendum that the standard is sometimes a smidgin high for the Old Master himself. This story of high school students who are, for a senior seminar in Advanced Survival, translated to an unknown planet to survive on their own resources is, by the Heinlein Standard, a rambling and not compelling tale, particularly weak on character-creation; but its detailed plausibility and careful thinking set it, of course, well above the run of teen-age science fiction.

H. H. Holmes, "Space in Fact and Fiction," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Part II (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 13, 1955, p. 14.

H. H. Holmes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The nominally "teen-age" science-fiction novels of Robert A. Heinlein stand so far apart from even their best competitors as to deserve a separate classification. These are no easy, adventurous, first-steps-to-space boys' books, but mature and complex novels, far above the level of most adult science fiction both in characterization and in scientific thought. Time for the Stars … is one of the best—and possibly the most difficult for the novice. This story of the first exploration outside the solar system combines humor and adventure with pretty intensive speculation on the mathematics and philosophy of time and relativity, the unused reaches of the human mind, and even a skilful touch of psychoanalysis. This may be too meaty for some young readers; but those who have relished the other Heinlein novels (and how adroitly he has brought his readers along from the relative simplicity of "Space Cadet"!) should find it stimulating.

H. H. Holmes, "Journey into Outer Space," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Part II, (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), November 18, 1956, pp. 3-4.

Villiers Gerson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Robert A. Heinlein's latest science fiction novel ["Citizen of the Galaxy"] a young boy searches the world of the future for the family he has never had. Thorby at first attaches himself to Baslim the Cripple, the ancient beggar on Jubbul, capital of the Nine Worlds; Baslim had bought Thorby out of slavery and was Earth's master spy. When Baslim's disguise is penetrated and he dies, Thorby finds another family among the space-hopping Traders. Then, while serving in the Hegemonic Guard, Thorby discovers his identity and embarks upon his last search amid treachery and intrigue.

Mr. Heinlein's ending is unfortunately weak and inconclusive; it was a mistake to compartment each of Thorby's adventures into a length in which none has the chance to develop as it should. But even with these faults, a Heinlein book is still better than 99 per cent of the science-fiction adventures produced every year.

Villiers Gerson, "Into the Wild Blue Yonder," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 29, 1957, p. 16.∗

Robert Berkvist

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert A. Heinlein wears imagination as though it were his private suit of clothes. What makes his work so rich is that he combines his lively creative sense with an approach that is at once literate, informed and exciting. "Have Space Suit—Will Travel" … carries the reader into the universe in the company of Kip (Clifford) Russell, a lad whose ambition is to go to the moon, and his unexpected traveling companion, Peewee (Patricia) Reisfeld, a terrifying 10-year-old genius whose penchant for getting into trouble is at least equal to her IQ. When the two team up with a lovable, fuzzy creature of vast capabilities, called simply Mother Thing, against some ghastly intruders dubbed Wormfaces, the reader is propelled into a yeasty—and often sobering—fantasy.

Robert Berkvist, "Teen-Age Space Cadets," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company: reprinted by permission), December 14, 1958, p. 18.

R. A. Jelliffe

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Heinlein's] own statement of his intent in writing [Stranger in a Strange Land] may well be noted; but it is not necessarily the reader's best guide in his perusal of it. "My purpose in this book," the author says, "was to examine every major axiom of the western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it—and, if possible, to make the antithesis of each axiom appear a possible and perhaps desirable thing—rather than unthinkable."

An ambitious and comprehensive undertaking, surely, "Western culture," even tho restricted to its major axioms—and who is to determine which they are?—is a complex of multiple concepts and behavior patterns. To stand each one of them upside down, with the avowed objective of discovering whether they may thereby appear more acceptable, is to subject each axiom to the warped mirror of ruthless reflection. Such a quixotic venture might well seem foredoomed to disaster.

But the author calls to his aid the helpful technique of science fiction, to lend a trace of plausibility to the preposterous. An experienced and expert practitioner in that occult craft, he launches his social critique by virtue of the rocket propulsion of this device….

[Stranger in a Strange Land] is an excellent yarn, creating its own atmosphere of fantasy and fascination as it proceeds. It is Alice in Wonderland for grownups of the space age. Disturbing vestiges of human actions and reactions in the characters who play their topsy turvy roles in this extravaganza project a mirage of veracity that lures us on and on.

In the quaint vernacular of our everyday world, a man from Mars …—becomes the protagonist of the fable. It is he who justifies the title, as well as the author's avowed intention in writing the book in the first place. It is he who reveals our mores and our morals to ourselves. He forces us to see ourselves as others see us—some god has given us, thru him, the gift to do so.

Even so, the earthbound reader may well be excused if he disregards this elaborate examination of our culture, except in passing, and finds his chief enjoyment, instead, in the wide ranging fantasy of the story for its own sake.

R. A. Jelliffe, "Alice in Wonderland Tale for Space Age Grownups," in Chicago Tribune, Part 4 (© 1961 Chicago Tribune), August 6, 1961, p. 5.

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The besetting sin of most SF is its humourlessness; there is precious little gaiety in space. Robert Heinlein is the exception. He is so completely the master of his medium that he can afford to make fun of it. Space Family Stone [published in the United States as The Rolling Stones] is, for the most part, an agreeable send-up of the spaceways. The Stones wisecrack their way from planet to planet, doing a little trade here and there, tending the sick (Mrs. Stone is a doctor) but mainly enjoying themselves. Grandmother Hazel, who is "the only juvenile delinquent old enough for a geriatrics clinic", justifies her decision to go on to Titan: "The dull ones stay home—and the bright ones stir around and see what trouble they can dig up. It's the human pattern." Grandmother is beyond question one of the bright ones, and so is the baby, Buster, who has all the youngest's tiresomeness and who is a chess genius. So are the twins, who try to sell second-hand bicycles on Mars, and Father, who sometimes seems a buffoon but is not. Behind the knockabout fun, beyond the quiet heroism, there is a sense of adventure and—rarest of all ingredients in SF—a feeling of wonder. Notwithstanding the bureaucracy which bedevils the planets, the Stones believe that there are fine things yet to see, and they take with them, carefully dieted to control its alarming fertility, one of the compulsively loving and lovable flat-cats of Mars.

"Rewards for the New Age," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspaper Ltd. (London) 1969; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3529, October 16, 1969, p. 1202.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

That old master of SF, Robert Heinlein, knows [science fiction] well enough to make fun of it. Kip, his engaging hero [in Have Space Suit—Will Travel], saves the world from an invasion of bug-eyed monsters—or their equivalent—and then goes back to his part-time job as soda-jerk in a drugstore. Kip has a nice line in wise-cracking: he also has great courage and deep humanity—it is his humanity which responds to the wisdom and tenderness of the Mother Thing. The M.T. is a Vegan, small, graceful and feline, and above all comforting…. As the complex, powerful story develops, the M.T. changes and becomes infinitely more formidable, but her vast compassion grows proportionately and she becomes no less lovable.

A few other writers manage the science in SF almost as well as Mr. Heinlein; no one else has his lightness of touch, the gaiety which in no way diminishes his fundamental seriousness. No one else draws so well the American Boy—the Girl, too, for Kip is accompanied into remotest space by Peewee who is ten and a genius. Peewee, who carries a dirty rag doll called Madame Pompadour through a series of appallingly perilous adventures, is one of Mr. Heinlein's best creations. In her maddening sophistication, her dreadful temper, her aggressive prejudices, her vulnerability, he is always entirely convincing, totally human. She deserves the father who, of all adults, is able to believe the story of their adventures and who knows all the right strings to pull. Professor Reisfeld is almost as good as Kip's father, who pays his taxes in cash (tied in a bundle) once a year and gives his occupation, on the official returns, as "Unemployed Spy".

Like all the best SF writers, Mr. Heinlein makes the most fantastic of adventures acceptable by relating them to the everyday world. His relaxed, throwaway style, precisely geared to the first person narrative pushes the story on briskly to a good-humoured conclusion.

"New Worlds," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1970; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3589, December 11, 1970, p. 1460.∗

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Starman Jones first published in America in 1953, is the story of a poor farm boy who longs to be an "astrogater", makes his way on to the space ship Asgard, duly gets his chance, and finishes the voyage as acting captain. The scope for wishful self-identification on the reader's part is obviously enormous. The tour de force of this novel is the hero's initiation into the mysteries of the ship's control room; so assured and absorbing are the author's descriptions that even the least technically minded reader receives the illusion of experiencing the perils of long-distance space navigation.

"Stars in their Eyes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3605, April 2, 1971, p. 383.∗

Brian W. Aldiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In 1941, Heinlein revealed the plans of his scheme for a Future History series, while [Isaac] Asimov began his long series of stories about robots with positronic brains whose behaviour is guided by three laws of robotics which prevent them from harming men.

In this respect, Heinlein and Asimov brought literary law and order into magazine science fiction….

Both Asimov and Heinlein brought intelligence and wide knowledge to their storytelling. Heinlein's preoccupation with power was sometimes to express itself disastrously, as in his novel Starship Troopers. But that was later; in the early forties, he could do no wrong. In 1941 alone, [the magazine] Astounding...

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David N. Samuelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] frontier metaphor has been basic to Heinlein's writing. Only eight of his … novels take place primarily on Earth, and four of them concern relations between humans and intelligent extraterrestrial beings, while a fifth concludes on the Moon. This outward spatial movement, coupled with a forward temporal movement, places Heinlein's characters in situations of extremity, facing the unknown and having to learn to understand it, in order just to survive. Whether they are in spaceships or on alien worlds, exploring or settling or righting wrongs—fighting off other species or learning to live with them, their situations parallel those of the American pioneers, for all that they are equipped with advanced...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

If one is going to republish Heinlein I would have thought it ought to be something like Glory Road, but Rocketship Galileo … was an inspired choice. This is pure nostalgia, from the world of Mecanix Illustrated and Authentic Science Fiction. It is the story of three bright young high school kids and their brainy scientist uncle who just get together and build a moon rocket. An air-force general was once asked what he expected to find on the moon and he replied 'Russians'. Ross, Maurice, Art and uncle Donald Cargreaves go one better; they find the Fourth Reich. A bunch of fanatical Nazis are about to use the moon as a base to drop atom bombs on the earth. Our lot thwart them just in time....

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Robert A. Heinlein] has been a vivid and controversial figure for three decades. His values have been called everything from fascistic to anarchistic, and as a writer he has been described as both a "natural storyteller" [see excerpt by Alexei Panshin in CLC, Vol. 3] and "not a particularly good story-teller" [see excerpt above by Brian Aldiss]. There is disagreement about which of his works are the best and which the worst, and about the value of his work as a whole. The fans have agreed for some time that he is their favorite writer, but the only thing that most critics agree about is the fact that he is there, he is important, he must be dealt with. And the first thing that must be dealt with is the...

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David N. Samuelson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In a Heinlein juvenile, a young boy typically (one was a girl) grows to maturity, in the process of living through and effecting events projected into our next century, by means of making decisions that involve his intelligence and mold his character. (p. 144)

[The vision Heinlein gave teenagers] was like Horatio Alger's in some ways, not only because it gave its readers a sense of their own potential, but also because it made clear that this potential could be limited as well as enhanced by scientific, technological, social, and psychological factors. Since Heinlein's juveniles are still popular in libraries, and are never out of print, millions by now must have been introduced by them to the...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert A. Heinlein is an outstanding figure in modern American science fiction. He has published voluminously, his science fiction sells well, and his work continues to be in print. His Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers have sold in the millions, especially in college bookstores. He has been described as one of the "fathers" of modern science fiction. He is also one of the few science fiction writers who have helped in making science fiction well known in "mainstream" literary circles.

But Heinlein is also a writer whose fiction and ideas often lead to strong feelings and reactions. Throughout his work, Heinlein appears to adopt positions favored by the American political...

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Jack Williamson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I suspect that [Heinlein's] most enduring work will turn out to be the dozen juvenile novels he wrote for Scribner's after the war.

Juvenile science fiction, as a labeled category, begins with Heinlein—though in fact most of the earlier magazine science fiction had been written for youthful readers and censored of anything likely to give offense. There had been new inventions, too, in Tom Swift and the dime novels, but no real futurology. The Heinlein series was a pioneer effort, quickly imitated….

Based on solidly logical extrapolations of future technology and future human history, [the novels] are cleanly constructed and deftly written, without the digressions and the...

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Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is often said that Robert Heinlein was one of the handful of writers (John W. Campbell Jr. and Isaac Asimov are others usually mentioned) who created modern science fiction. This may explain the strain of hubris in his most recent novel [The Number of the Beast] in which he seems bound to destroy his own brainchild, or at least reduce it to a figment of his imagination, together with the entire known universe and a number of other universes as well. Since this is a Heinlein novel, and not the product of some imprecise unscience-fiction writer, we know the exact number of universes the author has in mind: "Six raised to its sixth power, and the result in turn raised to its sixth power. That number is...

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Algis Budrys

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There are two ways to review Robert A. Heinlein's work since Stranger in a Strange Land, excepting … The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. With that exception, there is a pre-1961 Heinlein and then there is this "new" fellow….

The old Heinlein was a crisp, slick wordsmith of uncommon intelligence and subtlety. His gift for characterization was sharp within its narrow limits, and those limits were fortuitously placed to include the archetypical science fiction hero…. All his people talked alike. You could tell the stupid and villainous from the worthy and heroic only by their choices of subject matter. But his dialogue worked; its purpose was to propel the story, and it served quite well....

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H. Bruce Franklin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

From 1947 through 1958, Robert Heinlein was primarily an author of science fiction aimed at the "juvenile" market, specifically at teenaged boys. Besides two minor novellas serialized in Boys' Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, there were twelve dazzlingly successful novels published as a juvenile series by Scribner's. These dozen novels have proved to be as popular and influential as anything Heinlein ever wrote, all going into continual mass-market reprintings, with several transposed into movie, television, and comic-strip versions. (p. 73)

[These works] form a coherent epic, the story of the conquest of space. Like the tales and sketches Heinlein was publishing in...

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Theodore Sturgeon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Heinlein's following was ardent and instant with the appearance of his first short story in Astounding Science Fiction magazine more than 40 years ago, and it has multiplied with each of his publications. His series of "juveniles" had a great deal to do with raising that category from childish to what is now called YA—"Young adult." His influence on science fiction has been immense; his knowledge of the hard sciences and his gift for logical extrapolation inspired many beginning writers—and a good many already established hands—to knit fact and conjecture with a little more care and a great deal more literary quality than previously. The net effect over the years has been to erode the snobbery placed on...

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H. Bruce Franklin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You have to admit this about Robert A. Heinlein: He provokes strong reactions. Whether or not he is still the most popular and influential living author of science fiction, as he has probably been for four decades, Mr. Heinlein remains the most controversial, with hordes of fans and foes. "Friday" will convert few from one camp to the other.

One of Mr. Heinlein's self-images is that of a lone genius in the role of a carnival showman, providing fun for the masses, money for himself and deep truths for the select few who penetrate his disguise. So "Friday" is meant to have something for everyone: laughs and tears, thrilling adventures, titillating sex, delicious fantasies of power, and profound...

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