Oh, look, another newspaper writer is digging a deep hole to shove Robert Heinlein’s reputation into, mostly by intimating that no one takes Heinlein seriously anymore anyway, trotting out a bookseller to intone about Heinlein being a fascist, and even hauling up the New York Times assessment of moi last year to wonder if being sized-up for the “New Heinlein” mantle is actually a compliment.
Uh-huh. Well, since I am, after all, the author who is the subject at hand for the NYT piece, I think I’m allowed to pipe up here and ask a question. Which is: If being compared to Heinlein is such a liability, then why am I selling so many goddamn books? Because you know what? I am. Ask my publisher, he’ll tell you the same thing.
Let me share a moment of bracing honesty with you and say that while I think I’m a swell writer, and that’s certainly helped to sell my books, what’s helped even more is the fact that the trade paperback and mass market paperbacks of Old Man’s War have a big fat blurb from Publishers Weekly on the cover saying that the novel actually reads “like an original work from [Heinlein].” In terms of cold, on-the-spot bookstore sales, it’s probably sent more copies up to the cash registers than anything else. From there, I’m on my own remit to make sales number two, three and so on. But that first “boost from Bob” makes a difference. Tell me that being compared favorably to Heinlein is somehow uncomplimentary, and I’ll just look at you like you’re stupid. Because unlike most people, I actually have sales numbers in hand for this conversation. Unlike most people, I know what the actual cash value of this comparison is.
So to answer the question: Yes, it’s a compliment. It’s a nice big fat career-making compliment. Thanks for asking.
That disposed of, the question is how on earth can Heinlein possibly still be useful or popular when everyone knows he’s fascist, sexist relic of a primitive age. One answer is that he’s not (or, at least, isn’t in enough of his books to work with), but the problem with that answer is that even if it’s true, it’s not actually a fun answer. So for chuckles and grins, let’s assume for the sake of argument that, indeed, Robert Heinlein is a facist, sexist relic of a primitive age. How, then, does he persist?
First answer: most book buyers don’t give a crap. This is an entirely reasonable answer, since, in fact, quite a few authors persist in having popular books even when the author, their books, or both, are widely deemed politically or socially shaky in one way or another by the literary taste-making class, whomever they may be. Please see Ayn Rand, Tom Clancy, Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton and roughly 75% of the author lineup of Baen Books as evidence of this.
Thing is, most people really do read to be entertained, not to be politically ennobled in one way or another, and indeed can either forgive or ignore politics they don’t agree with as long as the story gets its job done. I know I can; I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy works perfectly well as long as you’re an Ayn Rand character; otherwise it’s complete crap. Doesn’t keep me from enjoying Atlas Shrugged for its potboilerrific qualities.
Beyond this point, science fiction has a long and proud tradition of irascible loners with contrary politics, and there are more of them than you think. I doubt there’s a single Ron Paul supporter in the land who doesn’t have a well-thumbed copy of either Farnham’s Freehold or The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or both. Being politically incorrect is not actually a liability in science fiction.
Another answer, related to the first, is that people who are appalled at Heinlein’s politics spend so much of their time in a righteous tizzy about them that they completely miss what he does right, and what ultimately what keeps his books on the shelf: the man can tell a story. Heinlein can do it all: He can plot. He creates instantly appealing characters. He writes dialogue that sounds like actual people speak it. He has a canny sense of what it takes to entertain people and more to the point, he finds entertaining his audience in itself a worthy goal. Dive into a Heinlein book and you may disagree with it, but you won’t be bored with it. Which annoys the people who hate his politics to no end — he’s a fascist and he’s a good read! How dare he be enjoyable!
The author of the LA Times piece offers up Heinlein’s low stock is low in the literary and academic science fiction circles as one of the explanations of why his influence is waning, which is a fairly backward way of doing things out here in the real world. Science fiction is and always has been a consumer genre; its roots are in engineering and pulp magazines, not in academia. This is why sales matter in science fiction; more directly than nearly any other genre, the people who eventually write science fiction are the people who grow up reading science fiction. People start writing literary fiction as they tumble through writing programs at Sarah Lawrence or Bennington or Iowa because that’s what they’re expected to write and they want to impress their professors and fellow students; people start writing science fiction, on the other hand, roughly ten seconds after they set down The Star Beast or Ender’s Game or Snow Crash because they get done with the book and think, holy crap, I want to do that. Academia generally wants you to show you can write; science fiction generally wants you to tell a story. It’s the storytellers who get picked up by the next generation of science fiction writers, and whose work is used as the blueprint for their own works.
(As an aside, the writer’s pointing up Philip K. Dick’s pre-eminence in movies over Heinlein misses a few points as well, not the least of which is, to put it bluntly, no one cares when a filmmaker radically modifies Dick’s work to make it fit into a movie, whereas people care very much when filmmakers fiddle with Heinlein’s text. If a filmmaker tried to overhaul wholesale a Heinlein novel the way that Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher and David Peoples did with Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep? he’d be burned in effigy; just ask all the Heinlein fans who still spit on the ground when the name Paul Verhoeven crops up.)
Heinlein’s flat-out readability is why, two decades after his death and now more than half a century after the publication of some of his most famous works, the man is still in print when the vast majority of his contemporaries are not, why he’s still actively influencing the genre, why being favorably compared to him is still a significant coup, and why people are still tearing their hair out that he’s still out there, despite his antediluvian sexual and political stances. If they really want him gone, the solution is simple: Put something out there that’s as readable as what he offers, and which offers a different political and social viewpoint.
Just be warned: Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s easy. If it were easy, we wouldn’t have articles continually trying to bury Heinlein. He’d already be gone.