Reader Request Week 2018 #6: The Fall(?!?!?) of Heinlein
Posted on May 9, 2018 Posted by John Scalzi 179 Comments
Here’s a question sure to be fun for everyone! Gottacook asks:
Does it seem to you that consciousness of Robert Heinlein as a singularly influential SF writer has precipitously faded in the past several years? (Not that this would be a surprise, as the 30th anniversary of his death is next week.)
Well, and I think you pretty much answered your own question, there, Gottacook. Heinlein passed away 30 years ago yesterday, his last book was published the year before that, and his three most critically and culturally significant works (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress) were published 59, 57 and 52 years ago, respectively. That’s a lot of time passed, even for a giant of the field. It’s also a lot of time passed for the people who read him when the works originally came out. Realistically, someone who read Troopers and Stranger when they were fresh are in their 70s (or late 60s at the most precocious). I read Friday, which I consider Heinlein’s last major work, when it came out, when I was 13. I’ll be 49 tomorrow.
Which is not to say that people don’t still read Heinlein, obviously. He’s still very much read and recommended, and he’s also taught, which is a non-trivial thing for the longevity of a novel. And science fiction, for better or worse, is a genre and fandom which traditionally has set great store in reading the classics. Finally, some works get rediscovered, or time catches up to them — Philip K Dick is more widely read and regarded than he was when he died in 1982 — and there’s certainly no reason this can’t happen for Heinlein, either. The Trump years have caused some Heinlein fans to mutter about Nehemiah Scudder. So, and to be clear, I don’t think Heinlein is going to disappear. That seems highly unlikely.
But the question wasn’t whether Heinlein is going to disappear; it’s whether he’s declined as an influence. I think it’s fair to say he has, if for no other reason than that in the last 30 years, the scene in SF/F has changed. For one thing, fantasy and fantasy writers are much more influential in the field and on emerging writers than they were when Heinlein was alive; there’s an entire generation now edging into their 30s who grew up at Hogwarts, and for whom people like Robert Jordan (with an assist from Brandon Sanderson) and George RR Martin loom large in their landscape. Over on the SF side William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Lois McMaster Bujold (not to mention Suzanne Collins) are much nearer influences, to name just three.
Also, as hinted above, YA authors are much more significant influences now than they were three decades ago. I can’t tell you how many younger authors count people like Tamora Pierce and Scott Westerfeld as significant in their development, and why wouldn’t they? And, yes, Heinlein wrote juvies, but the fact he wrote them is not the same as them currently being widely read and being influential. They’re not, which is not entirely surprising, as almost all of them are now sixty years old and the world they were written in doesn’t exist any more.
Aside from this is the fact that science fiction and fantasy, as a general field, is more diverse in terms of writers than it ever has been before, and that changes the calculus on who are rising and who are waning influences. Right now, it’s more likely that for non-male, non-white, non-straight writers, people like Octavia Butler and Ursula K. LeGuin are more significant and formative influences than Heinlein (or Asimov, or Clarke, who was not straight but who wasn’t exactly out about that). And again, why wouldn’t that be the case? This certainly isn’t a bad thing for science fiction and fantasy to have a new generation of creators whose influences are not the same small pantheon of writers.
Every writer comes with their own set of influences; every generation of writers has their general pantheon. And yes, Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and etc were and are titans. But remember that the titans were overthrown by newer gods — and that those gods themselves were supplanted over time. No influence lasts forever. If you’re lucky then you get become an influence on an influence, and younger readers (who then become writers) work their way back to you.
But I don’t want Heinlein to be an influence to an influence! I want him to remain relevant now and forever exactly as he always was! Well, fine. Then the answer is to get him heavily back into film and television. Heinlein purists like to grouch about Paul Verhoeven’s insufficiently respectful 1997 film adaptation of Starship Troopers (which, to be fair, is a perfectly reasonable position to take; I love the film but take the position that it coincidentally has the same title as the novel), but I would argue it likely bought Heinlein another decade in the common cultural consciousness. It certainly helped sales of that novel, and likely several others. If an HBOesque take on Stranger in a Strange Land ever manages to get off the ground (and it, too, would almost certainly need to be heavily adapted for modern audiences), you would see that novel and Heinlein come roaring back. Because Heinlein would be new to a whole new audience, for whom he had otherwise always been dead.
Which I would be fine with! As almost all of you know, Heinlein was a direct influence on me and my writing; it’s not for nothing that for years my elevator pitch of Old Man’s War was “Starship Troopers with old people,” and why I freely credited his influence on that book, and on me as a writer, in OMW’s acknowledgements. But I would warn old-line Heinlein fans that even if there’s suddenly a new legion of fans, they won’t like, love, or look at Heinlein the way you did. Coming to Heinlein at 20 in 2018 (or later) is a hugely different thing than coming to him at 20 in 1968, particularly if you’re not a white straight dude. Especially later Heinlein. I mean, come on, people. Time Enough For Love is one of my favorite books of his, but the protagonist’s literal motherfucking is still a squick and a half, and the fact Heinlein keeps it up for another few books? Yeah, that’s not something the kids are gonna let slide.
Which I am also fine with! If you actually want a writer to remain relevant, you have to accept that every reader and every generation is going to take that writer on their own terms. Heinlein can’t be the same influence that he was 30 or 50 or (yes) 80 years ago. New readers are going to accept some things, reject others, and approach still other things in a new way. Hell, this has already happened; in the 60s and early 70s, Heinlein was considered by the hippies to be something of a free love spiritual guru and Stranger in a Strange Land was the holiest of the Heinlein texts. For the last couple of decades, the libertarians have clutched Heinlein to their bosoms and don’t seem to have much time for anything other than Starship Troopers and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (with the occasional longing glance at Farnham’s Freehold). Who is to say that in another decade, I Will Fear No Evil won’t be looked upon as an ur-text of gender fluidity and early Heinlein — you know, the one that was all for Social Credit — won’t all be the rage? The street will find its own uses for Heinlein, if they find a use for him at all.
But, yes, if you want Heinlein still in the conversation: Get him on the screen, and do it regularly. Short of that, it’s likely that Heinlein — like most writers, no matter how significant and important they were in their own time, and Heinlein certainly was, and for a fair amount of time afterward — will continue to fade and diminish as a direct influence on new writers. There will always be a place for Heinlein at the grand table of Science Fiction and Fantasy, to be sure. It’s just that this place will be further and further away from where at the table the actual conversation is going on.
Note: For shits and giggles, and as an interesting compare and contrast, check out this piece from me, 11 years ago, on Heinlein and his longevity in the field. Note that piece comes from a slightly different angle (it’s about readers rather than writers), but you may find interesting the places where I still agree with myself, and where the places where it appears that I don’t.
I credit Heinlein’s work as one of the key formative influences in my life (and the fact that I emerged as a socialist a delightful irony). It has made me quite sad over the past year or so, trying to find the best way to introduce his work to my own two sons, that the juveniles are hard to find at best and the later works – as you note – a potentially tough entry point.
I may just have to shell out for the Virginia edition. Yeah, his writing meant a lot to me :)
PREDESTINATION was very well done a few years ago. I wish it had gotten a lot more of a push than it did. But it is clear context and knowledge of the source material is also important.
I saw a FB discussion where the first commenter thought it was the worst move in the last 5 years, but it was clear he didn’t know the source material. Everyone else had read “All You Zombies…” and loved the movie.
Ewan – Double Star and Puppet Masters might have aged okay? Based on my admittedly vague recollection of them.
I grew up reading Heinlein (’cause my dad read him when he was young) and enjoyed his books. But neither of my kids read his stuff. Instead I read the things my kids did, and wow, am I glad that Rowling and Westerfeld and such were their influences instead.
Sidenote: I’d forgotten how much fun – and really good, I think – some of the YA SF stuff was while the kids were in middle school. I may need to revisit some YA stuff again. Anyone want to recommend some YA SF that they’re enjoying?
Nothing ages faster than the future. I loved stranger in a strange land as a teenager, but when I tried rereading it recently I couldn’t get through it. These days I’d rather read mind stretching works which consider women to be human.
Susan E – Wasn’t “Dave” just “Double Star” without space travel? (Only half-joking.)
Hey, I was muttering about Nehemiah Scudder during W’s administration.
I absolutely devoured Heinlein growing up. Starship Troopers was the first “grown up” book I bought with my own money, circa 1975. But times have changed, and I’m not sure how you sell Lazarus Long today without a huge amount of renovation.
Yes, agree! I was a strong Heinlein fan for about 20 years, although some of his more militaristic attitudes and occasional preachiness had started to annoy me. And then “Number of the Beast” came out and I was ~so~ appalled with how bad it was that I sold my entire collection and have pretty much read nothing of his, old or new, since then. (It’s my understanding that some of his subsequent books repaired a lot of that damage, so good; I just didn’t want to go there.)
But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t and isn’t one of the truly great SF writers who shaped the field forevermore. I grew up reading his books and (at the time of NotB) had a complete collection of his SF works. As I grew older and developed my own political sensibilities, I found I disagreed with him more and more–“Stranger,” “Harsh Mistress,” and “Starship Troopers” all have the same underlying concept of “it’s okay to kill people who disagree with you or get in your way”–but his mastery of craft as a writer and his ability to Tell A Good Story can never be denied.
I’d still be curious, though, to read some of his teen girl novels and see how he did in that venue. :)
Just checked and the plot of “the door into summer” has the protagonist hibernating in 1970 and waking up in the distant future of the year 2000. that’s the sort of detail that might kick a reader out of the story a bit. At least, I think you’re going to read it from a different perspective.
It’s been a while since I’ve re-read any Heinlein and I bet the Suck Fairy has visited his works for me. So I’ll keep the memories of what they meant back then. ( But even in my 20’s the ‘have sex with everything/body’ was just a bit much.)
I don’t think RAH has ‘fallen’ really. Various reader groups I frequent have his works in regular rotations, I (and others) are replacing our old paperbacks of our favorite Heinlein works with their Kindle equivalents (why, oh why is a 65-year-old Juvenile more expensive in digital format than it was new in hardback? Asking for a friend)
Do the ‘Kids today’ still read his works? Well, in my experience, ‘Kids today’ don’t read, period. Today’s SciFi readers, who are still young enough to be ‘kids’ have at least heard of him from old farts like me.
20 years ago, I introduced my kid’s scout troop to Heinlein around the campfire when discussions of science fiction came up in the topic of the night. Now, those Scouts have kids of their own, and some discussion of the Grand Master is being passed to yet another generation.
Heinlein was never a Rowling (and I believe he would have hated the attention she got, though probably not the money) and I don’t think he ever tried to be. His ‘romance’ scenes put my teeth on edge when I was a kid and do to this day (in truth, I avoided Time Enough for Love for years because I thought it was another one of those kissy scene books. It wasn’t but when he bedded his own mom…) and his social commentary on homosexuality in a few of his books, as minimal as they were aren’t going to earn him any awards today.
that being said, I need to reread The Moon is a Harsh Mistress again.
@escapecar Yes, I was muttering similar things at the start of this century too. :(
You know, I hadn’t thought of how Lazarus Long and his antics would fare with readers these days, but giving it a passing thought, it seems that “not well” is a very likely answer.
Susan E – not so much YA SF, but if you are into Fantasy stuff, I read “The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel” series by Michael Scott with the kids when they were of an age. Quite good stuff, in my opinion
“Do the ‘Kids today’ still read his works? Well, in my experience, ‘Kids today’ don’t read, period.”
My experience is exactly the opposite of this.
Well said, and sad it is. My father introduced me to Heinlein, and he remains our favorite author. I read the juveniles with my own kids about 10 years ago, and now that they are in or bound for college I doubt either remembers one bit beyond “Johnny!” Times change and so do people. I’ll keep heading back, though–and one day, I might actually make it all the way through I Will Fear No Evil and The Number of the Beast. Tough slogs, those.
SCALZI HOW DARE YOU SAY FRIDAY WAS HIS LAST MAJOR WORK. I think Job was the first I read, in my early teens. Or maybe Cat Who Walks Through Walls? And i liked both of those better than Friday. Don’t know why. Looking back, either of those was a strange place to start my Heinlein journey. For whatever reason, i didn’t get into his YA fiction until i found used bookstores in my early 20’s, I should probably go back and reread about Pixel – as I recall, it had the same problem of a weak ending that most of his larger works did, but hey – maybe THAT’S how he influenced Neal Stephenson.
Susan E: I am enjoying Brandon Sanderson’s YA, or Mira Grant’s Parasite, or Westerfield’s various work. Probably any of the series that got movied up recently would work.
“Predestination” was a pretty accurate adaptation of “–All You Zombies–“. A bit added to fluff it out to movie length and provide an additional storyline that was lacking in the original, but far, far more faithful than any other Heinlein adaptation.
As a main sequence Gen-Xer, I got to RAH secondhand after having caught the science fiction bug from more accessible places (and coincidentally ended up at the same end of the political spectrum as you did, but I digress). Even then, Stranger defeated me at least twice as a teen before I could grok it ok at 25, or so. If it’s that integral to your personal philosophy, I would suspect you have a fairly mature take on it that you may need to lay down a foundation for if you want your boys to eventually be able to relate to it like you do.
As John noted, even though the primary influence may wane, he’s still a huge influence on AUTHORS, so getting more contemporary Heinlein-adjacent stories might be the way to go.
I won’t lie, I don’t mind at all that his influence is waning. As a teenager who had more than a couple of near misses with rape and assault, I was not prepared to read in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, Stranger In A Strange Land and Friday how it was my fault AND not that big a deal. And then to be told how great an ally he was for women? Blegh. And that was before the borderline pedophilia and incest took over. I read him in high school because in the 80’s if you were a science fiction fan you HAD to read him but I can’t bring myself to read him anymore, or to recommend his work. Perhaps his earlier stuff was better?
I think you’ve hit the issue for me. Stranger in a Strange Land was my second favorite book, but the woman thing makes me uncomfortable. It brings me out of the novel feeling vaguely queasy. I haven’t read much classic Sci-Fi, so maybe that’s an issue with all his contemporaries, but I feel like it’s far less noticeable in, say, Asimov, Dick, or Clarke’s writing. This factor alone make me wonder about his longevity and whether his novels will actually be considered beloved classics over the long term.
That was a cracking great read, though. There will always be those hard-core nerds who are into early, old-school SF, and would be able to take the anachronistic time scales with a grain of salt.
I don’t recall offhand if James Davis Nicoll has covered Heinlein in his “Young People Read Old SF” series, but even non-Heinlein installments of that are eye-openers for a sexegenarian reader like me. A lot of their complaints sound like, “This is stupid because there are no cellphones and everybody wears dumb hats and smokes,” but their eyes are fresh and they zero in on and question things we took for granted. (Though I acknowledge their wisdom, I stopped reading the series—in which a panel of young readers registers their judgements, if that wasn’t clear—because it was just too irksome for me to keep subjecting myself to it. They don’t like my favorite stuff, man!)
This post has reminded me that there are several later Heinlein books that I haven’t yet read. Well, next year. I’m doing the Tempest Bradford Challenge this year.
My first Heinlein was HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, after which I sought out and read everything of his I could get at the library. (I was, like, ten years old, so wasn’t buying books yet.) I sorta loved PODKAYNE OF MARS — until she decided being thrown up on by infants was more fun than being a spaceship pilot. Also, please remember the influence of the flat cats in THE ROLLING STONES — the original tribbles! (In case it matters, I was born in 1950 and am a white female. And I read everything, since I come from three generations of avid readers.) I didn’t like Heinlein’s later books as well as his early ones; he wasn’t really good at doing adult women. But hey, he wasn’t the only writer out there — does the phrase “Andre Norton” ring a bell?
Yeah, kids today read a lot. I’m a librarian, I get to see it! I enjoyed some of Heinlein’s boys-own-adventure stories, particularly “Red Planet” and “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”, but the more philosophical ones were pretty unbearable. Didn’t like the philosophy being put forth, didn’t like the protagonists, didn’t find a secondary character that I could latch on to to make the rest of it worth the time. And that’s okay. No book is the right book for everybody. None of them. The trick is connecting people to the stories that will be meaningful and life-changing and fun for them. And people are still reading and writing outer space adventures, they just have more options now about what those will look like.
As someone nearly 70, Heinlein was a big part of my youthful reading and thinking. I’ve subscribed to the new critical book on him by Mendlesohn, because I’m still trying to decipher just what was in that siren song that made me pay such close attention? And as I’m planning a class called “Learning to Learn” which contains some critiques of teaching and learning practice, I just had to include “the decline of Education” from Expanded Universe. When he’s good, he’s really good, but when he’s bad, well the books get thrown around the room, and join the discard pile.
Heinlein is the Ayn Rand for today’s fascists and sexist youth. His “free love” ways of “stranger in a strange land” have been absorbed by tinder and nobody thinks heinlein should get credit for it, thank god. All thats left is advocacy for a military junta and his idiocy of “no such thing as a free lunch” invoked by the sociopaths of the world.
Christ, the way he (via Smith and Jubal Harshaw) treats women as objects in ‘Stranger’ is a utopian fantasy for incels. For all his free love talk, he took a shit on gays.
There are authors today who have evolved beyond Heinlein’s one dimensional world view.
Like stephen king never said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Starship Troopers is about killing anything different from us and how military juntas always produce utopias”.
The sooner Heinlein is forgotten, or at the very least seen for what he truly is, the better.
I devoured his books as a tween / teen, and I’m fine with his influence waning.
As groundbreaking as his books were for their time, there are way too many unsettling implications (and flat out squicky sequences) that should relegate his works to literary curiosities rather than must-reads. Progressive for his time…but by today’s standards that’s a pretty low bar.
Not that some of his books aren’t good reads – Starship Troopers is one of my favorite books of all time – but there are enough other great works out there that anything but the big three can get a hard pass.
I think I read the entire Heinlein canon as they came out (and hey I am only 66 years young), so it has been a while. I remember liking his work, particularly his plotting, but even back in the dark ages the sex, the treatment of women, bothered me. To the point, that I have never gone back to re-read him as I have done with Asimov, Clarke, Dick and others. So, John, I think you may well be right that over the long term he will be remembered as a giant of science fiction in his time, but continue to fade as an influence over readers and particularly writers of the genre in the years to come.
I grew up on reading my parent’s old Heinlein books. I recently re-read a few and frankly the years show. They’re old enough that they have to be read “in the context of the period” as a literature professor would say. The books will are influential and will likely stay influential. He explored quite a few paths in Science Fiction after all. But 50-60 years since the books were written is a long time. We’ve all changed since we read these books first time, and I hope learned some things, and basically time-traveled forward as Spider Robinson puts it. This older context is something that us old farts can do easily, we lived that period. But this does become a hurdle to mass adoption. :)
I read just about all of Heinlein, and what holds up best for me is his early fantasies. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag in particular is a great one. Heinlein had quite a touch for making the fantastic seem probable.
When I was younger and less sophisticated I liked his story telling and how most of his books kept the reader reading as fast as possible right up to the last page.
Now that I’m older and more self-aware I know what makes his portrayals of women so problematic, and his straw-societies are much less believable. The suck fairy has definitely ‘blessed’ his work.
Up thread, Erika asks ” Perhaps his earlier stuff was better?”
My answer to that is that his earlier work was better, but only because it didn’t have the squicky stuff which he couldn’t write due to the market (Juveniles) he was in at the time. I’m pretty certain that if he had been allowed to, he would have filled the early books with as much squick as the later works had.
As a young and very closeted trans girl i wore out my copy of I Will Fear no Evil until the words faded off the pages due to the sheer number of eye tracks I put on them. But I was also extremely distressed when in so many of his other books he called trans people “Those monsters created by Surgeons”. Representation offered and then snatched away by the same author. How’s that for suck?
Heinlein was my favorite writer for a fair bit of my childhood, and I suspect the key to his future longevity will be the sheer fecundity of his imagination and his command of the adventure story. This thread has referenced a couple dozen Heinlein classics, and we haven’t even gotten to The Roads Must Roll, Life-Line, Magic, Inc, Waldo, And He Built a Crooked House, Farmer in the Sky…
To be sure, both the politics politics (went went mostly completely over my head at the time) and the gender and racial politics (which are fully of their era, and bugged me even as a child) are jarring to modern readers. But the passing of time cuts both ways here. As his views get more and more archaic, at the same time they get more and more distant and, potentially, easily to lay aside in the appreciation of his art. Few people are overly troubled by the racism, sexism, classism, etc, of Shakespeare or Austen or Dickens. We know it was a very different time and we move on. Of course in that vein it would help if the times were a little more different than at present they are…
I was in 6th grade, in my public library, and some kid said to me, “If you like that, you might like this, too.” I don’t remember what the “that” was, but the “this” was Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, and I loved it. My introduction to sci-fi. I read everything Heinlein ever wrote, loved many of them, even some that objectively — even at the time — I thought were probably not great. (Number of the Beast sticks in my head as representative of the “Um, huh?” category.) … And then I grew up and became a woman (as opposed to a girl) and then a mom and after that — his female characters, his treatment of women, his understanding of what it means to be female… I just couldn’t, can’t, won’t ever read anything by him again. From my specifically female adult perspective, his books have become as unreadable as those of Piers Anthony and Orson Scott Card. I’m sad for that, on many levels, not the least of which is that for the era, I think his books had more female characters & more interesting female characters than any other prolific sci-fi author that I can think of. But they’re not readable, not to me, not anymore.
I’m not much younger than OGH, and I can’t say I’ve ever really been drawn to a lot of the BIG names in ye olde SF. By the time I got around to reading them, they already felt rather dated.
That said, I do hope he continues to be read reasonably widely. I read Starship Troopers a few years ago. It wasn’t a great read, IMO, but it was not the book I was expecting based on the comments by it’s current, loudest, fans. It struck me as rather anti-military at it’s core. (For all its rah rah attitude, the soldiers are clearly treated as completely disposable by the people in charge and are being massively misled on what kind of stint they’re really signing up for.)
Heinlein was my father’s favourite author, so I grew up with his juvies to start and later into his novels. There’s still ones that I love, but rereading them is like reading some classic works, where you need to drop in the ‘at the time’ filter to not let some of his attitudes and characterizations blow up any enjoyment of them. Coming at Heinlein relatively fresh today, at least half of them I can’t imagine even making much sense, on top of some of the offensive elements.
Oddly, while it certainly wasn’t his best novel, like the poster above, JOB to me was his last good novel and still one of my favourites. The fact that he quietly slips in multiple points to show how awful a person his protagonist is in many ways was rather clever and his approach to Christian mythos with a strong mix of literal takes was rather deft.
After many of years of not reading much at all, Heinlein was the writer who launched me into a lifetime of devouring books, back in my teens in the late 1980s.
I read Stranger, Job: A Comedy of Justice, Puppet Masters, Number of the Beast, and a couple others. Granted, part of me saw a lot of his plots as complex excuses to get people naked (by the time I hit Puppet Masters, I was pretty much convinced of this). But I got a lot out of those early books, and his writing sent me on my way into other authors.
I don’t know why I stopped getting further into his catalog and why I don’t refer to him much now. Part of it is, as you point out, how often his name is associated with libertarian and pro-military crowds. But I hope people keep reading him – there are a handful of writers who are must-reads for a long, long time after they’re gone.He was an imaginative storyteller.
A lot of Heinlein’s work hasn’t aged particularly well, but he is very readable and I devoured his works when I first discovered them in grad school in the late 80s. His attitudes towards women, while probably enlightened for his time, can be pretty grating–his female characters all seem to be men in women’s bodies. And the rape scene in Friday (followed by her later marrying her rapist!) made me want to scream at him in frustration. Where I think he still has value is in the way he liked to take an idea and extrapolate it out. Starship Troopers, for example, was in some ways a thought experiment about what a society would look like if only veterans (NOT active-duty military) and others who had provided government service were allowed to vote. I also really liked some of his short horror-type pieces as well, such as The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, which is downright creepy even today. Still, overall, I’ve re-read a few of his works in the past few years, and whether it’s me aging, the changing culture, or some combination thereof, I found him a good deal less compelling than I remembered.
I’m currently re-reading ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’, not for the science but because it’s still a rattling good story. Have ‘Stranger…’ kicking around somewhere, probably re-read it one more time. And ‘Starship Troopers’. Wish they’d make a movie out of that one!
I recognize some of the titles from Heinlein, but I am not sure I have ever even heard his name.
I am of a generation (36 years old) where my influences as a writer are the likes of Neal Stephenson, Robert Jordan (I, no joking, have the Wheel of Time tattooed on my arm) and … John Scalzi. Maybe Peter Clines. I kid around that when I grow up, I want to be Stephenson (if explanatory science/speculative fiction is really a genre or just Stephenson-esque is debatable).
Am I influenced by Heinlein? Not so much as he was the influence of my influence.
My dad read Stranger… as a teenager and had his mind blown, so he highly recommended it to me. I, on the other hand, literally threw the book across the room in a rage when Heinlein went out of his way to point out that free love was okay, but homosexuality was perverse. My dad didn’t even remember that part, which would have upset him in any book he read today. My only other read is “Door into Summer” which was super squicky. I definitely feel like I am not exactly his target audience, but also time has not been kind to the ones I have read. But Predestination, for which I have not read the source material, is one of my favorite movies.
Heinlein was the author that flipped my switch from having to read to wanting to read. If you look back at his career you can see that he actually pushed the envelope on the social issues of his time. He got away with an awful lot for the McCarthy Era and the second red scare.
A lot of his concepts had to be coached in military-fascist cloaks, lest he be noticed by those whose fears ran away with them. I believe some of those things shaped some of his views later on.
I don’t know if it is good for younger people to have forgotten those events in our history. I have always been a believer that there is no future without history. Maybe a Heinlein during the Red Scare would bring younger people to him. It would be a good topic to consider, especially at this time.
I’m of Scalzi’s generation and loved SF and fantasy as a teen, but never finished a book by the grand old men of SF – the books were so old-fashioned, and sometimes badly written. I did enjoy earlier authors and I wonder if that’ll happen to Heinlein – will he someday seem quaint and cool and distant enough that we can laugh at the squicky stuff?
I have to say I’ve always been grateful to the unknown to me elementary school librarian who, back in the early 60s, stocked our school library with a full collection of the Heinlein juveniles. Which led to Asimov and Clarke, and then on to others.
At the same time, Heinlein’s an author from what’s becoming a long time ago. How much of an influence do Herman Wouk, Allen Drury, or Arthur Hailey–all very popular authors from the late 50s/early 60s–hold on popular fiction today? I’d expect Heinlein to be pretty much the same–someone who wrote good genre stories that people really enjoyed back in the day, but who’s aged out of the mainstream.
Another anecdata point on whether The Kids These Days read: I’m the parent of a 5th grader and not only do he and his friends read, they are passionate discussers of the books and series they love. For my son’s crew, that’s Harry Potter and Warriors at the moment. They will dissect various plot points and favorite characters.
I don’t try to police what he reads (beyond giving him books I hope he’ll connect with one day, like The Dark is Rising and a Wizard of Earthsea, etc.). It is my *hope* that one day he’ll glom on to those books I loved when I was his age, but I don’t *expect* him to, because what resonated for me will not necessarily resonate for him. It’s a different time. (When he does connect with a book I love, that’s a gift for me!) Young me was hit freaking hard by Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage books, but I suspect that if ever he reads them, he will find the aspects of the gay protag being oppressed heavy handed compared to the way I experienced them in the AIDS crisis in the 90s.
Stranger in a Strange Land was the only Heinlein book that ever really resonated with me, though I read a few others. But I still found it alienating for reasons others have mentioned above, and I haven’t tried to reread it in years because I’d rather hang on to the memory of what I enjoyed. I read SiaSL probably 30 years after it was published and it’s only gotten more dated since. I’d never recommend it to my son or his friends (well, certainly not in 5th grade!) unless he started a deep dive of classic SF on his own, and that’s okay. There’s so much great writing now, he won’t run out of books to connect with any time soon.
Have Space Suit, Will Travel probably doesn’t age well, but I loved it as a teen and later as a twenty-something. Much of the rest of his canon which I devoured at the time I loved, but I haven’t found myself going back to it the way I have with other works.
For modern-day YA SF authors, I second the recommendation for Scott Westerfeld (Leviathan, Behemoth, Goliath in particular I liked). My son has started on the Dragonback Bargain books by Timothy Zahn which I liked as well.
I think I know where Heinlein was coming from in his earlier decades of writing (I always read the copyright date) because I grew up with 1930’s high school textbooks in my basement. Back then, I think, people would know where the phrase “bought the farm” came from. (earning precious Roman citizenship, plus a small farm, after a lifetime of service in the legion)
N.Y. Times best-selling author Rita Mae Brown, in her writer’s manual, says that our heritage used to be three streams (Hebrew, Christian (Europe) and Greco-Roman, but that after WWI we dropped the latter stream (Which cost poets and novelists a lot of symbols) This “dropping” could explain a throw away line in Rolling Stones where an old guy complains, (from memory) “Quote a bit of Latin at them and hey look at you like you’re funny in the head.”
To the Greeks, citizenship was precious, not a scrap of paper, not merely voting every four years for others to be the government, but was an going willingness to be uncomfortable and take responsibility. Forget the couch.
(For example, unlike us, the Greeks would have sent a long-term formal congressional committee to inspect the progress of the goal of teaching democracy in Iraq, and individual citizens, including females, would have volunteered to go be interpreters to “win hearts and minds” during those scary U.S. army night raids on families) The Greeks, and Romans too (before the decadent empire) served for free, without conscription or legal penalty for just staying home. (the republic supplied the rations and catapults and so forth)
In Heinlein’s formative years, the citizen service ethic meant that even the U.S. president did not make much money, and admirals had an income comparable to a reverend’s. Even today (totally unlike in Canada) the post exchange store, PX, is utterly necessary to armed forces people.
I suspect part of the reason people got involved (such as the political club where Podkane’s uncle plays cards) was that television had not yet been invented.
I have to try to amplify the love for PREDESTINATION that a couple of previous posters shared.
I’m in my mid-50s and went through two distinct phases with Heinlein when I originally read him. As a younger reader, I devoured his YA fiction and he absolutely contributed to my love of reading. Once I got out of my YA phase, I could only really get into Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and some of his darker earlier stuff (Hoag, Farnham’s Freehold, etc).
I do find it funny that the only Heinlein adaptation that I really like is an adaptation of a short story he reportedly wrote in one sitting (All You Zombies…). Of course I always loved that story (and the novel by David Gerrold that it so obviously influenced).
Heinlein said everything of importance he had to say in his first short stories. The stories from 1939-42. That was a 3-year run of excellence few sci fi writers have equaled. Most of what came afterward was filling and padding that first burst.
To be honest I wouldn’t be too broken up if Heinlein was forgotten by the mainstream reading public. Lots of very popular authors were forgotten after their fans died and younger potential fans couldn’t see the attraction. Heinlein wrote about racism, slavery, rape, incest and sexism in grossly offensive terms and he used “artistic license” for years to get a pass for the awfulness. His stories were always didactic but after 1960 they were more padded with long speeches about The Way Life Is and How Things Ought To Be. He was a better craftsman than Asimov and Clarke and he told many entertaining tales but I’m not sure readers in the future are going to want to put up with his basically paternalistic voice.
ROH is still read by at least one script writer; A character in Z-Nation used the word “grok” which had me laughing. Of course, then we had to pause it so I could explain said laughter to my companion.
I read Time Enough For Love in the 70s because I was dating a straight white male who was enthralled by it. I actually loved huge swaths of it, but even as a 16 year old girl in the 70s who hadn’t discovered “women’s lib” yet in any meaningful way, I was put off by his potrayal of women. I would not at that time have been able to explain why, but it was a sour note in my otherwise pretty compete embrace of that novel and the other Future History books as they came out.
I also loved Door Into Summer and I Will Fear No Evil, although both left me with the same unpleasant sour note regarding how he wrote about women. When I reread all three books in my 50s, I understood my sourness. Door Into Summer was a particular disappointment because I had loved that one so very much. But in my 50s, I noticed that the protagonist basically falls in love with a child and instructs her to do some things so that they can meet up as adults, and she does them, and I am so grossed out by that, because it makes her an object, not a person, and it makes the protagonist a next door neighbor to being a pedophile, who used his position as a much loved adult to influence her to do something that may or may mot have been in her best interests. The text makes it clear that his thinking about what he was doing did not include any consideration for her best interest, only for his own.
And yet Heinlein was, in the 70s, touted as an author who wrote really great women. You know what? I dated several boys and then young men who wanted nothing more in the world than to be Lazarus Long, and who set out to treat women the way LL did, and to be honest, the better they succeeded, the less appealing they were to me and my contemporaries as people to date or have sex with.
It was a great relief to me near the end of the 70s when I started dating women. I never again encountered a potential romantic partner who would have been cool if only they hadn’t drunk the LL koolaid quite so thoroughly.
I miss the books I used to think TEFOL and Door Into Summer were, but I am happy to live in a world where people I might want to date look at that stuff and pretty much uniformly say, “He was technically a great writer and he told great stories, but he was defeated in the end by the way he depicted women and relations between men and women.”
Has Heinlein declined as an influence? Well, sure. Can’t influence an audience you don’t have. Go look in the bookstore: how many copies of Heinlein on the shelf? How many books by Rowling or Green or Collins?
Is that loss of influence deserved? I think so. Heinlein put a great deal of his own ethos into his novels and his ethos has really not aged well. A great deal of his ethos is, frankly, vile, so the fewer people influenced by it the better. I remember reading “Starship Troopers” (before the film came out) and wondering when he was going to tip the balance and make it clear that he was being satirical. I *very* clearly recall the moment when I realized “shit, he’s not kidding, he *believes* this.”
And that’s not just due to age. Plenty of ideas *do* age well, and *do* maintain or even grow an audience as time goes on. Here’s a better message than anything in Heinlein: if you allow your fear of things that are different to dictate your actions, it will destroy you. You know who put that message in his writing? Stan Lee. Movies based on Stan Lee characters broke $24 billion this month. “Moon is a Harsh Mistress” came out in 1966 and I’d be hard pressed to find any of my students who have read it. Fantastic Four #52, featuring the first appearance of Black Panther, also came out in 1966, and *all* my students saw Black Panther. I think we made the right choices about whose influence to maintain.
I loved Heinlein in my teens and early 20s. When I went back to re-read in my 30’s, I couldn’t get more than a couple chapters in because his portrayals of women pissed me off so much. With such amazing work out there now, I feel like his stuff is best left to academia.
@Sean Crawford: “the Greeks would have sent a long-term formal congressional committee to inspect the progress of the goal of teaching democracy in Iraq” feels like at best vague and over-generalizing, like talking about “the Americans” without specifying whether you mean the US today, in Heinlein’s childhood, in the Taylor administration, or during the First Great Awakening, nor whether you’re talking about Massachusetts, Georgia, or California. I suspect that if Heinlein could have read this part of the discussion, he would have pointed out how limited citizenship was in both Athens and Sparta–the Athens of the Delian League wasn’t trying to spread either democracy or self-determination.
I’m not saying we should throw away Greek literature–the last book I finished was Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey. But try to read it without too many blinders. Recognize, for example, that Odysseus is the protagonist in that the story is about him, but nothing like a role model. The narrative viewpoint treats the rape of enslaved women either as normal and acceptable, or as an offense against the slave-holder, if the rapist is one of his enemies, not him or his guest.
Yes, “of its time,” but acknowledging that is different from overlooking a book’s flaws, whether the author is Homer or Heinlein.
Quite unscientific but it will be interesting the number of comments you get vs the nearly 500 you got 11 years ago. That might speak to his relevance.
I think his YA works are still petty entertaining, and recently went back to them (anyone remember stobor?). Although I read ALL things Heinlein starting in middle school in the 70’s, I never thought much of most all of his books written after 1965, with exception of Time Enough for Love.
I am surprised (and relieved) that he hasn’t shaped me politically despite reading him when I was in my formative years. He would have made an excellent running mate to Donald Trump. Ugh!!!
Despite that, he will always be a hero of sorts to me. He was my best friend as a teenager.
It’s especially non-scientific because 11 years ago I left comment threads open indefinitely, so there was lots of time for comments to accrue. These days I generally turn them off after two days.
SF does not age well since technology changes. A Fire Upon the Deep has spaceships with space internet bandwidth that is not much better dialup. I remember the numbers were like 500 kb. Stuff like that takes me out of the sense of being in the future. I cant reader older SF. I am 43.
Fantasy ages better because it does not have to worry about technology changes. Swords and magic in Tolkeins books are the today as they were when they came out. Sword technology has not improved.
Robert: “Few people are overly troubled by the racism, sexism, classism, etc, of Shakespeare or Austen or Dickens.” Shakespeare, Austin and Dickens were not building utopias in their books. The brilliance of Austen and Dickens in particular is that their characters are constrained by their worlds, but act according to principles we still can recognize as moral or otherwise. Heinlein’s world building limits this- he chose all elements of the world building thus the sexism etc in the strictures of how his worlds are set up is less forgivable.
Warning: this will be longissimus, non legi
I’m going to come at this from economic and lit-crit (because, English major) points of view.
Heinlein’s influence has unquestionably diminished, and much of the reason is not his fault nor doing. And some is.
The economic reasons are in no way his fault. Throughout Heinlein’s Golden Age, science-fiction was a niche market. It was a small pond. The minimum quality standards were appallingly low, from a writerly point of view. The giants stood out as much as they did because they *could* write… Although they often failed. Pick up any of the “collected complete works” of someone who was a major author in the postwar period through the late 60s, and you will find a certain number of clinkers, stories that are written so badly that you wonder why the editors even back then saw fit to buy them. They border on unreadable. I’m not talking about ideas or politics or philosophy. I’m talking only about the quality of the prose.
Heinlein was an excellent wordsmith. His stories were page turners. It was dangerous to pick up any of his books, flip it open, and start reading. Because you had to sit down and read the next page and the next page and the next.
He was one of the handful who stood out in that small pond.
The pond turned into an ocean in the late 70s. The double-barreled shotgun of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — all of a sudden SF F was really big business! Hollywood noticed and never stopped noticing. Book and magazine publishers, too — the publishing opportunities for authors exploded. Readers younger than that age cannot imagine a time when it was possible to EASILY read every semi-decent novel that came out in a year. Well, that’s the way it was prior to the explosion.
Heinlein doesn’t have to get any smaller; the pond has gotten a whole lot bigger, and in multidimensional ways, much more diverse, in all directions from hard mil-fic to new wave feminist. It’s not an agenda, it’s simply that a bigger economic pond can support many more distinct viable eco-niches. A lot of those niches are ones where Heinlein simply doesn’t live.
And then there are the writerly aspects. As I said, authors who consistently wrote well were very rare in the Golden Age. That changed in the late 60s/early 70s. The standards went way up for what was considered minimally acceptable prose. I “blame” it on the generation of writers who were raised on the best of the Golden Age. They just assumed that was the level they had to strive to achieve.
But whatever the reason, as the average level of pure wordsmithery goes up, Heinlein’s distinctiveness goes down. Relative to the mean, he doesn’t stand out as much.
And then there is what is his fault.
When “I Will Fear No Evil” came out, I do not know a single reader who wasn’t disappointed. It was not a particularly good book. The most common explanation heard in fandom was that because Heinlein had been mortally ill (surgery saved his life), it was a book written by a very sick Heinlein and had been put into print on the assumption that he wouldn’t survive to rewrite it. Yes, it was that weak compared to what we expected of him.
That was mostly NOT about the socio-sexual politics. Although they were troublesome to a lot of us, even 45 years ago and even when I was a young 20-something boy. I suspect that aspect of the book has not aged well at all. I’m almost afraid to go back and see.
Except… Big problem… “Evil” was not a fluke from a dying author. His work from that point on was, on average, undistinguished. There were ups, there were downs. But if you filed the serial numbers off the =later corpus and handed it to naïve readers to rate, they would not, on average, say this was one of the Greats, especially not in the much expanded SF F ocean.
Time Enough for Love is simply not a good novel. There’s at least one good novel in there, possibly two. But that core dump of a book isn’t it. I think that’s the point at which it became evident that Heinlein had simply become Too Big To Edit… Or else the publishers had become Too Small. Heinlein could indulge his indulgences, obsess about his obsessions, and ride his hobby horses to his heart’s content, even when it did not serve the narrative nor the overall story. And he would go on at such length that it almost never did. He was badly in need of a good and powerful editor.
I could dissect several of his later novels and arrive at the same conclusion. In fact, looking at Friday and looking at the precursor novelette that appeared in Astounding many decades earlier, I discovered there were many of the same indulgences, obsessions, and hobby horses. They were always there in Heinlein’s prose, but they were restricted to a few sentences or at most a few paragraphs. In his Post-Editing era, they would go on for pages and pages. Just plain bad craftsmanship.
It’s not merely that it’s 30 years since Heinlein died, it’s that it is 50 years since he was producing work that made him deserved to be considered a Giant in the field.
The world changes and moves on.
– pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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This thread hasn’t been very surprising, though it has introduced be to a movie I somehow missed: “Predestination” and “All You Zombies” appears to be the only Heinlein story or novel that I somehow have not read. Upon reading a summary of the movie, I’m gonna skip it and the short story as that’s exactly the kind of time travel paradox I detest. but “Heinlein is the Ayn Rand for today’s fascists and sexist youth” is just absurd to me as Ayn Rand is and always will be Ayn Rand to such types.
One work I haven’t seemed mentioned is Citizen of the Galaxy, which I think could do just fine in a movie or series adaptation.
I must admit the only book of his I remember reading was “Space Cadet” and I found the writing that weird blend of hokey and outdated but endearing. There wasn’t much representation for me as a young girl, but it was readable enough. I guess. Of course this was long after his heyday, after his passing too, and frankly I only read it because I was going through a Nicholas Fisk phase and the librarian said it was similar (yes, but also very much no) so I never really got to think of him as one of the genre titans. I’m afraid I associate him with outdated notions and poorly behaved fans. First with the Starship Troopers contretemps and more lately with, you know, those guys. Also, I’m not American; which may or may not be an important part of his “Legacy”.
I think, right now, his legacy is as a force which later authors reacted against rather than an enduring force in and of itself.
Sequel post, sorry John, forgot to add; Ayn Rand for today’s fascists, if it isn’t still Rand herself, is Terry Goodkind. He of the demonic chicken infamy.
I tore through every Heinlein work I could get my hands on as a teen and in my early twenties. By my late thirties, his approach to female characters and relationships turned me off so completely that I have not been able to get more than a few pages into any of the volumes that so enchanted me decades ago. I think Heinlein will always be relevant to the genre as a point of reference showing the arc of how F/SF has evolved over time, but his works on their own merits have not aged well for me.
The one thing that I have always, always remembered and appreciated is a quote from Stranger in a Strange Land. I work for an employer that lives by policy and position papers, and I cannot count the number of times that a senior-level numbskull has done a hamfisted job of altering a paper that was the result of weeks of careful effort and polishing. And each time another artfully crafted policy paper is hacked to the point of incoherence, I close my eyes, take a deep breath and remind myself of Heinlein (speaking through Jubal Harshaw) saying “You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it, he likes the flavor better, so he buys it.”
Doesn’t change the awful editing job, of course, but it makes me grin every time.
This thread fascinates me because, while I am roughly the same age as Mr. Scalzi (I think he’s two or three years older than me, IIRC), Heinlein was *never* an influence of mine, because I never once read him in my youth. I didn’t read anything by RAH until I read a few short stories of his when I was well past my college years, and my only attempts at reading his novels resulting in me bouncing off his work. I don’t claim any special insight here, other than to note how very possible it is for someone with similar genre loves as another person from the same generation to have entirely different reading experiences.
As a kid in the late ’60s and ’70s, I loved Heinlein’s juveniles — “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”; “Rocketship Galileo”; “Tunnel in the Sky”, etc. I read “Stranger in a Strange Land” in the mid-’70s, and it must truly have blown people’s minds in 1961.
If, in 1980, you’d told me that one particular famous sf writer would have tons of screen adaptations, I would’ve put my money on Heinlein. Great ideas, solid story-telling. Never would’ve guessed Philip K. Dick.
(Agreed that “Predestination” was a really good adaptation of “All You Zombies ….”. I was really surprised that they kept the original timeline, giving us an alternate-universe history of the late 20th century.)
I’d love to see a good adaptation of “By His Bootstraps” or “Glory Road”.
But thinking back … it’s not just all the incest and sexism and weird mix of libertarianism and authoritarianism and nuggets of bullshit philosophy that sound good. His influence is waning just because of the passage of time, like with his contemporaries.
Once upon a time Heinlein was my favorite author. Now… well, not so much. The way I look at the world has changed a lot, and so has the world, and the combination is not good for those books and the attitudes expressed therein.
But that’s cool. I don’t have to fit in the shell I wore when I was younger.
@Wyndes, “From my specifically female adult perspective, his books have become as unreadable as those of Piers Anthony and Orson Scott Card. ” speaks exactly for me. I was born in ’58, read Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke obsessively in the 1970s and even ’80s. The only Asimov I remember clearly are the Robot stories, Foundation, and the one (memfault) where it turns out that an alien species is formed by its three genders merging together. Of Clarke, a couple of short stories.
Of Heinlein? How angry I was on a thorough reread, a few years back. It is not simply that his books are “of their time”; it is that many characters aren’t persuasive, and the female simply make me cringe. I used to want to be Heinlein Woman; now I look at her, and her life seems so much less rich than mine, even though she’s better at engineering. And the juveniles — that sort of teenager is long, long gone, and that sort of autocratic father is not regarded kindly today. Those people aren’t, for lack of a better word, relatable: they make sense only within their own time.
Take one of the less (IMHO IMHO) readable Austen novels, Mansfield Park. The heroine is the neglected niece taken into a wealthier family. Her distinguishing characteristic is shyness and stubbornness. Her big moral crux of the novel is scarcely comprehensible today without supporting essays — she doesn’t want to appear in a play while her uncle is away at sea.
And yet Fanny Price survives. We recognize her neglectful and cruel aunt Mrs Norris, her careless birth family, her resentment and envy of the attractive and charismatic Crawfords, one of whom she nearly marries. Even within her obsolete context, Fanny is real, and recognizable, and so are her friends and enemies.
By contrast, look at Podkayne of Mars. Podkayne’s mother is a putative monster, but she’s a carelessly-sketched monster. By Heinlein’s terms (as spoken by Podkayne’s uncle late in the book) she is a Bad Mother because she works and has babies. Fanny Price’s mother, Mrs. Price, is a Bad Mother by Austen’s terms, because she had too many babies and didn’t bestir herself to take proper care of them. The difference is that we see Fanny’s mother, we recognize her point of view, her desperation. Even as she isn’t doing her job, we recognize that she has collapsed under the weight of her load, rather than never trying to pick it up at all. Podkayne’s mother? She’s just an inciting incident.
That’s what I think is going on with Heinlein: the context has disappeared and the characters, *taken as a whole*, aren’t satisfying. Teenagers today look very little like the teenagers of the 1950s and 1960s, and the rigid gender and social roles, the emphasis on obedience and respect for authority*, and the vanished social context, don’t transfer without a strong character hook. The children of the 21st century are worrying about debt and parental abuse and unreliable elders and sexuality, and Heinlein teens aren’t.
My children, babies of the 1990s, read some of my antiquated childhood favorites with enthusiasm, while rejecting others. It didn’t even occur to me to suggest Heinlein.
* There’s a whole essay to be written on the autocratic fathers in Heinlein juveniles. Not by me, though.
I like the image of having grown up at Hogwarts. :) Personally I grew up both on the Rocket Ship Galileo AND in the Land with Thomas Covenant, the Giants, and the Bloodguard.
These days (being a bit more enlightened and clueful than when I was a teenager), the part of Time Enough For Love that I find most disgusting is not Lazarus having sex with his mother, but Lazarus taking it upon himself to decide whether Joe and Llita’s baby should live. After very self-righteously manumitting them from literal slavery, note. “Oh hey, I know you’re free human beings and all, I am not a slaveowner, ew. But I’m still going to do these careful genetic calculations to figure out if your kid is likely to be ‘defective’. And if it turns out she’s not ‘normal’ at birth, then maybe I’ll let her turn blue and die instead of jump-starting her respiration? For your own good, of course.”
Lots of other things in his work that bug the hell out of me — casual attitude toward rape, casual attitude toward killing, some nasty snark about the ACLU in his last novel that enraged me so much I threw it across three rooms — but I think the scene I cite above takes the cake.
Postscript: I feel that anybody in bed with Lazarus Long would be faking an orgasm just to get him to shut up and go away. Possibly before they got their top buttons undone.
As a longtime Heinlein fan … my twitter handle is an homage to one of his characters … I acknowledge he’s less of an influence now that he was back in the 60’s. I don’t love his books any less, although I think I view them through more of a realistic lens than I did as a teenager. Frankly, it’d be tragic for sci-fi if in all that time we hadn’t had new influencers arise to inspire fresh creativity in the field. Heinlein was, is and will always be one of the greats, and as a Heinlein fan, I’m satisfied with that.
Although some new, good movies based on Heinlein works would be great, too.
I believe I’ve read all of Heinlein, Farnham’s Freehold excepted. Started with Rocket Ship Galileo when I was about 12 or so in the early 50s. He started losing me with Starship Troopers, which I thought was a bad Marine recruiting ad. So yeah, though he continued to have some good ideas, his message got steadily creepier and his writing poorer as he went on. The Number of the Beast was an unreadable mess.
Will he survive? Sure, at least in academe, though not to the extent that Verne and Wells survive as reading experiences, and less and less as influence.
Stephen :”. I remember reading “Starship Troopers” (before the film came out) and wondering when he was going to tip the balance and make it clear that he was being satirical. I *very* clearly recall the moment when I realized “shit, he’s not kidding, he *believes* this.””
My first exposure to starship troopers was the movie, and I had the EXACT same reaction. I kept waiting for the reveal that showed these fascists were, no really, fascists. When the credits started, my jaw hut the floor. I read the book afterwards, cause i thought maybe there was a problem converting to a screenplay. But nope. Book was more fascist than the movie.
Honestly, when people complain the movie is nothing like the book, my response is, really? Because the movie had to cut some of the fascism out?
I was a big fan of Heinlein in my teens, up until about 1989, really. But I was never really certain he was writing for “me”, so to speak, mostly because firstly, I’m female, and secondly, I’m Australian. One of the impressions I got from a lot of his writing (particularly the less formal stuff, such as “Expanded Universe” and so on) was he had the strong belief that the USA was the only country which mattered on the planet, and for everyone not to be firmly patriotic about the USA (even if you didn’t live there) was somehow treasonous and horrible. Which, as an Australian, sort of grated, even on my teenaged self.
What killed my interest in Heinlein comprehensively? Well, a friend introduced me to this new British writer on the scene, a bloke by the name of Terry Pratchett – and I was hooked.
I want to argue with the majority conclusion here, but… I just can’t. I discovered Heinlein in 1964, and read his works obsessively for a dozen years or so. I still have a soft spot for his juveniles (which drove me toward engineering as a profession), and his work in from the 30s through the 50s was brilliant. But at my last re-reading, I found it hard to stomach anything after Glory Road — anything that wasn’t offensively libertarian or authoritarian was sexist. Sigh.
Re: Starship Troopers, the movie. Even if I believe Paul Verhoeven, that the whole thing is to be taken as a subtle satire, it falls flat on its face. After the first obvious-propaganda segment, it becomes a traditional vapid teen movie and then an even more vapid action hero movie. It’s not presented with the least bit of irony, and all the visual cues and tropes are designed to have the audience rooting unthinkingly for Our Troops. Which, based from the comments and reviews, was how audiences reacted.
Personally, I think Verhoeven’s explanation of what he was doing was BS. I think he wanted to have it both ways — a cynical Catch-22 message to draw in the Vietnam generation and a rah-rah shoot them up for Sons-of-John-Wayne who want to see the good guys blow up the bad guys.
It is possible to make good movies that address this contradiction — good people and good soldiers in the service of a venal and manipulative government. This doesn’t even try. It just wants to have it both ways.
My title for the movie? “Starship Troopers — 90210”
My personal pick for the most Heinleinesque (in a good way!) movie would be TOMORROWLAND. It’s an almost perfect Heinlein juvenile. If you imagine Heinlein born 60 years later and growing up with appropriately more modern sensibilities.
– pax \ Ctein
[ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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I suppose The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks through Walls, Job, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, don’t count as major works because they all devolve into weird 4th wall breaking nonsense, where the characters realize they are characters in a novel, before just randomly ending.
This is fair.
Please don’t ever do this. You came kind of too close for comfort in Redshirts
Thanks for choosing my question; both your response and the comments it elicited are quite interesting. (I’d forgotten about the 2007 post that you linked to; I see that I commented there, twice). Also, of course, best wishes on your birthday tomorrow.
One thing I keep thinking about reading these responses (and maybe a future question to be discussed) is how much are our thoughts and values determined by our environment and times we live in, and how much we can change as we age? i.e. Would RAH still have the same values had he been alive the past 30 years? I can’t imagine I’m any better a human being than he was. I imagine my beliefs about race would have been much different had I been alive in 1850. Heinlein was very proud of his values regarding women, cherished his wife, and thought he was very progressive. And for the 1950’s, just maybe he was. He frequent;y credited his wife for his success, something Einstein had trouble doing.
I’m 42, American, female. My mom has read more of his stuff than I have – I got through Stranger in my mid 20s but the sexism was agony. I think I took a try or two at Starship Troopers but never made it past the first few pages. I’m still debating whether the interesting bits of Stranger were worth it. I do love the concept of grokking things/people/etc.
For me, he’s a perfect example of a writer whose stuff Did Not Age Well at all. There’s a good bit of Asimov and Clarke that is dated as all hell, but that I can deal with. I think part of it was that they weren’t trying to be “cool” the way Heinlein was, in Stranger at least. I can see why he was a major writer, but….nope. Can’t do it.
Heinlein wrote this letter to the black writer F.M. Busby the year of the March on Washington. A lot of “men of his [Heinlein’s] time” were better than this.
I apologize in advance if this is a bit of a a de-rail, but all this conversation about Heinlein makes me wonder if anyone at all reads Asimov these days? I’m 10 years older than John, and like a lot of the other commenters I read and loved a lot of Heinlein when I was in my teens and over time found him less and less to my liking.
But Asimov: I could never figure what people saw in him. At the same time I was reading and loving Glory Road and Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I was trying to read and failing to finish most of Asmov’s stuff. I think I got through I Robot, but the Foundation Trilogy? Nah. Foundered in its first volume twice and gave it up as a lost cause. Unlike Heinlein, the writing was clunky, and the ideas and characters were worse than clunky.
So my question: Are there any commenters in this thread under the age of, say, 40 who have actually read and enjoyed any of Asimov’s work? Hell, anyone at all? Of any age?
I couldn’t get past the first three chapters of NotBeast.
I decided I didn’t care about ANYBODY’S nipples that much!
pax / Ctein
My own take is that Heinlein, along with Asimov, Bradbury and Clark, will be seen as major influences by those who actually care or write about such things. The rest of the world will move on and their works will be “re-discovered” by new readers who are mining the back-history of SF/F. I read SF voraciously in my teens and early twenties but somehow missed people like Judith Merril, Van Vogt and Hal Clement until fairly recently. And for whatever reason, I’d read James Blish’s Star Trek books but didn’t know about his “Cities in Flight” books.
I was going to argue with some of the statements but realized that I didn’t really want to spend the time. Everyone has favorites. At least here there didn’t seem to be any of the attitude that only a horrible person would like “Fill In The Blank With The Novel You Hate Most”.
I think for a lot of us who grew up reading him; reading his later work was along the lines of feeling “Huh. That wasn’t what I thought it would be.” Sort of like running into an old friend and discovering that you just don’t ‘click’ any more. You still think of him fondly in the past and just overlook or not even think of the later version.
Pixlaw: I’m 52, so not a young reader, but I re-read the Foundation trilogy again just last year and really, really enjoyed the triumphs of scholarship, cleverness, and peaceful cooperation over brute force and raw power. It helped me get through a bout of Trump-era depression.
On Heinlein: I can’t find the source right now, but someone (Jeet Heer, maybe?) remarked that earlier Heinlein stories reflect a mind at work questioning and exploring possibilities, while later ones reflect his growing confidence in his own correctness and loss of interest in working to really understand or examine alternatives. This seems right to me, and particularly unhelpful to storytelling and art when one of those ideas is, really, a form of solipsism.
The Suck Fairy, like rust, never sleeps. Fifty years from now, some of today’s darlings will be looked at and people will wonder, “What the hell did I ever see in THAT writer.”
Steve C: Pretty much all the people writing fiction for market ask themselves a lot, but more about 5-10 years from now than 50.
I must have been 13 when I read #. I really cared about nipples. In fact, I think it was the cover of Friday that turned me on (pun intended) to Heinlein. One look at that cover and I knew I needed to read that book.
Saturn Run is phenomenally good. Cost me a night’s sleep. Thank you.
That fragment of the letter has to have been a foundational document for Farnham’s Freehold.
I read and enjoyed Glory Road and a number of the juveniles and sort of enjoyed “Stranger” and then I came across “Farnham’s Freehold”.
And that was that.
When the mask comes off, you should believe what you see underneath.
The genre has changed, and part of the reason for that is that the world has changed. Science fiction may look into the future, but it inevitably does so through the lens of the present.
I think something a lot of Heinlein fans fail to recognize is that if Heinlein were still alive and writing now, he would not be writing the same kind of books he did 50 years ago. He’d be writing books that were in dialogue with today’s culture, and there’s a decent chance that the people who worship him would not like them! (This is why the answer to the question, “Could Starship Troopers win a Hugo in this day and age?” is “I should HOPE not!” ST was an excellent book for its time, but its time is not today.)
@ Susan E: The treatment of the secretary in Double Star is a little ew (and I found it so even in the 80s), but the base story line is still interesting.
@ clell65619: Well, in my experience, ‘Kids today’ don’t read, period.
Bullshit. If that were true, you wouldn’t see shelves full of YA books in bookstores. Diane Duane is laughing all the way to the bank with the Young Wizards books, not to mention JKR and Meyer. If the young people around you aren’t interested in the books you try to shove into their hands, consider that the problem may be with your choice of books.
@ Erika: If the rape and incest stuff bugs you, try taking a look at the juveniles, where even the mention of sex was verboten. You may not like them any better, but at least they won’t squick you that way.
@ Mme Hardy: The Asimov book whose title you’re blanking on is The Gods Themselves.
@ pixlaw: I’m over 60, and have read a lot of Asimov — although more the short stories than the novels, and I never got into the Foundation series at all. But yes, I read and enjoyed his work when I was younger, and there’s some of it that I still think well of today. The Black Widowers stories and most of the robot short pieces hold up pretty well… although I never did like the character-breaking portrayal of Susan Calvin in “Liar!”, in most of the robot stories she’s a smart, competent woman who doesn’t take shit from anybody, and that was unusual and cool in those days. But that said, I have to admit that I was much more strongly influenced by the collections of his F&SF essays, from which I learned all sorts of things and picked up several turns of phrase which have stayed with me to this day.
I guess I’ll out myself here: I bought the Virginia Edition, less because of the novels than because of all the ancillary stuff, such as three volumes of letters, two volumes of screenplays, and two volumes of nonfiction writing (some of which is “nonfiction” by the barest of margins).
That said, I also agree that there are some VERY unpleasant things to be found throughout the canon – privileged and even ignorant treatments of sex, gender, race, and politics that aren’t what he himself grew up with. He does tend to write essays disguised as scenes, particularly in the later books where he was Too Big To Edit, but the tendency can be found even in the juveniles. (I can think of three or four in Red Planet alone.)
But damn if the man couldn’t tell an entertaining story, which puts me in the really uncomfortable position of enjoying his fiction while wincing badly at some of the ideas it contains.
In answer to the question from “Pixlaw,” yes, I continue to read and enjoy much of Asimov’s science fiction, not only the Foundation stories, but many of his short stories, in his collections Nine Tomorrows, Earth is Room Enough, and others.
Andrew, there’s a *reason* “How to be a fan of problematic things” is such a perennially hot topic. :)
“Perhaps his earlier stuff was better?”
Early Heinlein is very different, in content and politics. He started his career as a leftist and then, after divorcing his leftist wife and marrying a right wing conservative woman, he veered more and more far right over time. He started his career having to censor his fetishes in order to get published, and as he got famous enough to not have to ever worry about rejection again, he let those fetishes hang out on display more and more (yes, ewww).
If you have tried one of his famous novels and bounced off of it, or bounced it off the wall, then try one of his short story collections (all or nearly all pre-war), or one of his novels whose original magazine publication was before WW2. (however, avoid at all costs Sixth Column, which he wrote to Campbell’s spec and is racist as all hell because Campbell was a huge racist). Also the novels he published in the 50’s (mostly juveniles plus a few novels for adults) are worth checking out.
Here’s a crib sheet for Heinlein’s pre-war novels, since they are normally listed only by date of their publication in book form (which is sometimes long after the war):
Beyond this Horizon
Orphans of the sky
Sixth Column (avoid at all costs)
Of those, Beyond this Horizon, Waldo, and Magic, Inc are the best, Methuselah’s Children is also quite good.
I think some of his best shorter work includes:
The unpleasant profession of Jonathan Hoag
Revolt in 2100.
The very best of his 1950’s work:
Double Star. (not a juvenile)
The Star Beast (juvenile)
Citizen of the Galaxy (juvenile)
Have Space Suit, Will Travel. (juvenile)
OMG, I had to stop reading that letter a quarter of the way through. Smoke was starting to come out my ears. Which is just a waste of good smoke, when it’s a 50 year old letter from a 30-years-dead guy. In 1964, I was an upper middle class 15 year old white boy, and not even close to being enlightened (by now standards) but I already knew a whole bunch of that crap was, well… crap.
Being thirteen is an entirely legitimate explanation. I was 30, and nipples were not so much of a novelty.
There is also the quip about the Golden Age of science fiction being…
I read They’d Rather Be Right when I was eleven, and thought it was a fine, entertaining book. Oh no, so bad. Even making huge allowances for the cultural and literary norms of pulps at the time. Soooooo bad.
Saturn Run cost you a night’s sleep!?
Then my work here is done. Up, up, and away!
Seriously… thanks! Hope you read the Big Idea about it (google for it).
Good advice about the juveniles. Heinlein said once that his approach to writing a juvenile was to write an adult book but with no sex.
pax / Ctein
“I don’t recall offhand if James Davis Nicoll has covered Heinlein in his “Young People Read Old SF” series,”
Two: The Menace from Earth and The Man Who Travelled in Elephants. They like the first more than I expect and the second much less than I expected.
I also reread all of the juvies back in 2014. Sadly, the creepy sex stuff crept in there as well. Not harmless stuff like the guy who gets rolled by a hooker in Starman Jones but the Great Uncle-Niece stuff from Time for the Stars. Or the family assuming the 17 year old teenager is going to marry the next man she sees who is not a blood relative from The Rolling Stones.
Question for people who don’t think kids read: who is buying all those YA books?
I don’t know if people _read_ Asimov but I know the local libraries stock a lot more of his books than Heinlein’s. You want to stay on library shelves, write hundreds of non-fiction books in form suitable for curious teens.
Heinlein was a man very much of his time, even in his counter-culture aspects. Both Science and Society have changed, have moved on from him and his writings. There are many things in Heinlein that are as disagreeable as Shakespeare’s Anti-semitism in Merchant of Venice, and Agatha Christie’s, or HP Lovecraft’s racism. Not that these were his problem, but chief among them, his portrayal of women is in the same league of problem.
The hard part of Heinlein is that women and their place in society are often very much part of the stories that he presented. Not all, obviously some are more problematic than others. Heinlein wrote a lot about women, and it is to many current readers unpleasant to read. It is something to get past. It is present in the way Racism is in HP Lovecraft more than secondary nature of it in Christie.
Heinlein could have a resurgence in a lobotomized form like HP Lovecraft in board games and use of his mythos by other writers. A certain aspect of especially his early aesthetic. But Heinlein is going the way of Lovecraft as a writer. The World Fantasy Awards dropped Lovecraft as an idol. If Heinlein were in the same position, I would recommend dropping him to.
Heinlein should be read as historical science fiction, studied, even enjoyed as Christie is, and even the Merchant of Venice are. But, as one should engage with the Merchant of Venice by addressing it’s anti-semitism, so must be said of Heinlein and his portrayal of women.
If Heinlein were writing today what he wrote then, I would not purchase his works. But if he were alive, he would be a different man writing different works.
I’m 60, and I mostly gave up on Heinlein after I Will Fear No Evil, partly because of it, and also people whose recommendations I trusted, steered me away from the latter works. I’ve reread at least parts of most of his stuff that I read in the 60s and 70s, and with the exception of a couple of the juveniles, some short fiction, and maybe The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, I think the suck fairy got to Heinlein more so than the few Clarke or Asimov I’ve reread. I still am not sure whether to try to read Friday, Job, or the others later ones. I find it interesting that it doesn’t look like that last three or four novels are still not available as ebooks. Is the estate asking too much for ebook rights?
@Madame Hardy: F.M. Busby was black? I don’t think I ever met him, but in the pictures I can find of him on Google, he looks to be white.
Regarding Farnham’s Freehold, I sometimes wonder if the entire novel was an artsy delivery vehicle for a paragraph where the hero says that in the present day real world he was in a port where the manual labour dock workers (navvy jacks) were white, and the white collar office supervisors were black.
This would have been a little before Americans (on the whole, judging by their actions) believed in civil rights and a federal anti-lynching law. … By the way: A few years later, at the time of his death, Bobby Kennedy had a marvellous lengthy public domain plan to use grass roots efforts (not top down) to improve a famous ghetto.
I knew F.M. Definitely not black.
“Heinlein was a man very much of his time…”
That’s a problematical phrase. Many use it to excuse horrid beliefs. I know you’re not, but it is important to remember that lots of white folks living in 1964 and of Heinlein’s age were not that kind of racist and would have vehemently disagreed with him. It’s not a pass, it’s not an excuse for anything. His beliefs were more common, but they weren’t close to universal.
pax / Ctein
Sadly, I don’t have time to read every word of each post tonight, I have an early morning appointment. I did skim them all.
It seems that FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD is always misunderstood. When Heinlein wrote that book it was before the March on Washington. There were constant lynchings in the South and Jim Crow laws and voter repression against People of Color. This was distubing to Robert Heinlein. FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD was his protest book. He had a difficult time with his editor getting it published. When I read it I was only nine years old and I saw it for what it was, a turning of the tables in an attempt to illustrate the true horrors of what was going on around me in my society. FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD may be the reason I grew up liberal among bigots and racists. If so, I’m grateful to the book. I was a white child in the racid t South.
According to Heinlein’s biography, he wrote that book in order to show what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot. It horrified people then and now people think he was some sort of white supremacist. He was not. If the book disturbs you, it was meant to do.
Heinlein wrote the book as a satire. He turned the slavery around and it’s been a black stain on his character since the book was published (pun intended). There was nothing in that book that wasn’t drawn straight from the annals of 400 years of slavery in America, but look at the response it’s recieved in the last 45 years. The only difference is that the roles were reversed. That is exactly the sort of reaction Heinlein was going for, but the Civil Rights Movement made it unnecessary. This is what he wrote in letters to friends about the book at the time. It was unnecessary but he thought it a good experiment.
RAH and Virginia did not join the John Birch Society. They made a donation in the name of John Birch and were furiously angry when they learned they’d been made members. RAH wrote and demanded that their.names be immediately removed from the membership rolls. The Society continued to list them as members and use them as fundraisers..RAH.despised this.
If you want to know more about RAH, James Patterson wrote an excellent biography in two volumes. It’s a fascinating read and all Heinlein’s letters are included. The insights into his writing are wonderful. There was an astonishing amount of censorship. I was amazed how much it interfered with plot, character and content.
I still read his books from time to time. I still enjoy them but I remember that it was a different era. We’d been at war with the Soviet Union for decades in the Cold War and RAH was on the front lines of that war. I lived through the Cold War myself, we were always expecting The Bomb to fall. It was a constant fear in the background of everything we did. If you lived through that then his books make sense.
As far as all the women having such a desire for children, Heinlein and both his wives tried desperately to concieve. What Heinlien didn’t know was that he was sterile. Virginia never told him the results of their fertility tests. Their longing for offspring came through in his writing. They did have nephews and nieces and the books still sell.
Men of the 1950s and ’60s, just in the US, include MLK, Malcolm X, the Berrigan brothers, Jimi Hendrix, William Burroughs, William F. Buckley Jr, Andy Warhol, and Samuel Delaney. Pretty clearly it was possible at the time to be much worse than Heinlein in various ways, and much better.
I can’t be objective about Heinlein (which my auto-correct wanted to turn into Heineken, something I *can* be objective about).
Robert Heinlein was an idol of mine when I was growing up, reading sf and unaware of the subculture of fandom. Even when I didn’t see it his way, he was so compulsively readable, I would finish the book, arguing with it in my head. Because even if I didn’t agree, I understood him—he made himself clear. Decades later, when I was the liaison between the committee and the Heinleins for the first Kansas City worldcon, we hit it off in a big way. It’s no coincidence that my son is named Robert.
The key to getting along with Robert Heinlein was manners. He was, as he told me once, a rural Missouri farm boy, and discovered early on in life that you could get anyone to talk to you and take you seriously if you demonstrated good manners.
Heinlein’s writing is actually more intricate than most people realise. For instance, in his juvenile Tunnel in the Sky, a survival thriller that predates the Hunger Games by decades, there’s a gay couple among the colony of survivors. The main character is male, but he isn’t white, nor are a number of other characters. In those days, editors believed (erroneously) that sf’s audience woudln’t accept protagonists that weren’t straight and white and usually male. So writers of Heinlein’s generation took to sneaking things past them. But I digress.
I’m 60 and I never liked Heinlein. Not the politics, I just didn’t find him the amazing story-teller everyone else did. (Obviously thousands of people had a YMMV to that).
Predestination suffers from being too faithful to the source. The stuff about the protagonist going into space as a NASA comfort woman just seemed ludicrous decades after Sally Ride.
@patcadigan Are you sure it was a gay couple and not just two people cohabiting? Tunnel was published in 1955 and my impression is that Heinlein was fairly hostile to homosexuality until the 1970s. There was that terrible line in Stranger about “poor in-betweeners” (1961), then, starting with I Will Fear No Evil (1970), he seemed to gradually get more liberal about it, up to a point — I suppose some LGBT fen wrote him polite letters and got him thinking about his attitudes.
I don’t know which two people you mean — haven’t read it in decades — I’ve requested it from my library system but this thread will be closed by the time it arrives.
Happy Birthday, John!
“Heinlein could have a resurgence in a lobotomized form like HP Lovecraft in board games and use of his mythos by other writers. A certain aspect of especially his early aesthetic. But Heinlein is going the way of Lovecraft as a writer.”
If you’re implying “Lovecraft is now ignored as a writer” – I am really not sure that’s correct. Lovecraft is still in print, and I would guess may even take up more shelf space in my local bookshop than Heinlein does. Someone’s buying those books.
I would play a “Rolling Stones” board game, though. Or design one.
John, thanks for this topic. I’m admittedly biased in how much Heinlein and his work has been an influence for me personally. I’m just glad to see over a hundred comments! I believe Heinlein will stay in the conversation just like Verne or Wells. In the digital era there’s no reason why works can’t stay available for those that want to “trace the source” back to Heinlein or any of the other ‘golden-age’ greats.
If you’ll allow the plug– the Heinlein Society was founded to keep Heinlein’s contributions noted, accessible, and discussed just like your readers have done in this thread. We also work to keep doing good works of the type that Heinlein and his wife supported in their lifetimes. If anyone would “want to know more” we’re at http://www.heinleinsociety.org.
I’m with people here who say that Heinlein is interesting from a historical perspective. And I don’t judge anyone for liking him (I mean, I was seriously into Gone With the Wind for years) but…when I was more into online dating, and when OKCupid was more popular than Tinder, my friends and I had a list of books in the “Favorites” bit that made a guy an auto-skip. Not that liking them was bad, but that publicly presenting that as your Favorite Book said certain things about you. Fight Club and Catcher in the Rye were on there; Ayn Rand was *so* on there; and yeah, Heinlein was on there too. Not so much as Card and Goodkind, but still.
In high school in the early-mid ’70s, my preferred rank of “senior” SF authors would have been Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein, although I was a big fan of Van Vogt and Schmitz.
My problem with Heinlein is that he was an intelligent guy with a wide range of thought, obviously. But I think he was a little too impressed by his own smartness. (Something that also comes through in John Campbell’s editorials.) If the reader just nods along with the author’s smartness, all seems well. (‘Seems’, because I know that reading and admiring excerpts of Lazarus Long’s diary, as published in Analog, gave me some quite obnoxious opinions for a year or two, which, like LL, I would communicate to others for their edification.)
But when the reader catches on that the writer is getting a bit too impressed with his own cleverness, and could actually be wrong, then it all falls apart. As a minor example, I remember in some book or another Heinlein goes to some length to basically lampoon gasoline, piston, four-stroke automobile engines as incredibly poorly-designed and overcomplicated Rube Goldberg mechanisms. I remember being rather impressed by his analysis back in the day. But now it’s half a century later, and those engines are still with us. Maybe Heinlein’s clever deconstruction was not so clever after all.
For what it’s worth, I reread Citizen of the Galaxy a few years back. It impressed me rather less than the first time I read it. And even the first time, while I liked the overall concept, I found the whole legal battle on Earth to be overlong. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is often cited as the last of his good books….well I tried rereading that, and gave up a chapter or two in.
If there’s anything I might try rereading again, it would be The Past Through Tomorrow. I last read it maybe fifteen years ago. At least if one story is a bit weak, the next one might be good.
“So my question: Are there any commenters in this thread under the age of, say, 40 who have actually read and enjoyed any of Asimov’s work? Hell, anyone at all? Of any age?”
I read everything by Asimov I could get my hands on in 8th grade (I’m 37), and a few years ago reread the Foundation trilogy and the robot novels and found I still liked them. I’ve unfortunately learned since that Asimov himself was something of an ass, but since he’s dead and can’t hurt anyone now, I feel okay enjoying his writing.
Asimov was my introduction to science fiction, and Piers Anthony, though the Incarnations of Immortality books was my introduction to fantasy. I really liked Anthony at the time (7th-8th grade), but the sexism in his Xanth novels is now way too much for me to take. (And I was always irritated at the honor thing). I was excited when the Incarnations novel about Nox came out, but it was awful – sex was literally the answer to every problem and it was just boring. My parents always let me read whatever I wanted, which was generally good, but wow I was not ready for Firefly in 8th grade – and at the time I didn’t know how not ready I was, I just kind of went with it; it’s only in retrospect that I realize how inappropriate that book was for a 13-year-old. (And I’m generally on Team Read Everything Whenever You Want).
“Question for people who don’t think kids read: who is buying all those YA books?”
I absolutely do think kids read, but I’m also one of (I think) many adults who enjoys YA sci-fi and fantasy. Some of the most interesting premises come out of YA writing. Only downside for me is reading about teenagers discovering romantic feelings for the first time, but that’s to be somewhat expected with the territory.
As far as Heinlein himself is concerned, I love the Starship Troopers movie at age 15 or so (and interpreted it as largely satire), but only got about 10 pages into the novel at age 25 or so. The word “grok” is useful, and Stranger in a Strange Land is important to many people in the polyamorous community, but there are so many other things to read that trying Heinlein again just doesn’t make the list for me. I’d rather read Scalzi, Gaimain, Okorafor, Leckie, Lackey, Flint, McGuire, etc etc etc.
And I certainly had “WTF” moments on other aspects of Heinlein’s work that so many commenters have already discussed. But I don’t think “a bit too clever for his own good” has been covered that much.
Peridot2: I’d love to believe your interpretation of “Farnham’s Freehold”, but it seems unlikely after reading that letter RAH wrote, where he expresses, literally, white supremacy. His bullshit pseudohistorical dismissal of the entirety of Sub-Saharan African culture (absent the gifts bestowed by colonialism) as “stone age” required, even in 1964, willful ignorance on the part of somebody as smart and well-read as RAH.
(The same disgusting views have more recently expressed by Rep. Steve King of Iowa, a member of our very own U.S. Congress. King doesn’t have much in the way of brains, but in 2018, with all the research that’s been done over the past half century, his kind of ignorance is utterly inexcusable.)
Sean Crawford: “Back then, I think, people would know where the phrase “bought the farm” came from. (earning precious Roman citizenship, plus a small farm, after a lifetime of service in the legion)” Sean, that’s under debate, and the origin of the phrase is almost certainly 20th century. (Its common usage makes no sense in relation to the Roman custom anyway, since it refers to dying, not retiring from service.)
Frasersherman: Agreed, it was very strange that the Predestination movie kept all the “future history” of the ’70s and ’80s that Heinlein wrote in 1958, including “comfort women” in the space program. Wouldn’t have hurt to change some of that and move everything up by half a century. But, just as in the short story, that one line, “I know where I come from” still literally gives me chills.
I discovered Heinlein around 9 years old, so that would be mid-70s. I read his juvies, of course, and enjoyed the ride they took you on. It’s odd, but I remember walking away from Starship Troopers when I was 10-11 not with the impression that Heinlein was promoting a militaristic utopia, but that the society described in the book was deeply flawed and problematic and the way the story was told progressed in a way that revealed both those flaws alongside the strength and power of propaganda. But again, I haven’t read the book in decades. I know I read it again in my 20s and still had the same impression of it.
I have no idea what Heinlein’s actual views were or his intent with Starship Troopers. I’ve never read any of his essays or a biography. I just found it odd that so many read the book differently than I did. I remember I read Stranger more than once when I was 11-13. It’s odd how ‘grok’ has become so widespread in its use even among people who have no knowledge of its origin. It always fascinates me how language works.
I know I read Number of the Beast and vaguely recall it. As I remember, I think I just accepted it on its terms and read it as a sort of comedic fantasy. Taken in that vein, I remember it as an entertaining, fast-paced romp through a lot of different absurd situations.
Even when I was a child in the 70s, I remember noticing a lot of attitudes about race and women that struck me as wrong, but not too different from what I saw from people in the world around me. And definitely common in all the other older things I read.
The Heinlein that has stuck with me the most are “The Note Books of Lazarus Long” from “Time Enough For Love” .I don’t agree with them all but many are truths to live by and most will make you think about the idea even if you don’t agree. To this day I still quote some them.
A few of the best IMHO.
The more you love, the more you can love –and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.
What are the facts? Again and again and again –what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” –what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!
Little girls, like butterflies, need no excuse.
What a wonderful world it is that has girls in!
“I came, I saw, she conquered.” (The original Latin seems to have been garbled.)
There is no such thing as ‘‘Social Gambling.” Either you are there to cut the other blokes heart out and eat it –or you’re a sucker. If you don’t like this choice –don’t gamble.
Just to tie together a couple of thoughts here: I read lots of Asimov and think that it holds up better than his peers but realize that may just be personal taste reflecting my somewhat dispassionate personality, especially when I was younger. The I, Robot universe has probably had more real-world influence through the thinking behind the Three Laws than anything that Heinlein produced, although it falls short of some of Clarke’s work in that regard.
The comparison of the two, though, shows what a muddle we can be in at this point in history. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most would consider Asimov’s real-life behavior toward women as inferior to Heinlein’s; he did some actual damage there. On paper, though, the difference in The Black Widowers and Friday, to pick somewhat representative examples, is the difference in benign institutional sexism (bad and to be improved) and deeply toxic individual sexism (more immediately damaging and, to my eyes, a whole ‘nother degree of bad). In another 30 years, as memories of the actual men fade and only the words are left, Heinlein is the one who ends up looking worse.
Oh, and @pixlaw, count me among those who loved Asimov’s novels. I’m not under 40, but you did add any age. I was reading them at the same time I was reading Heinlein, Clark, and Bradbury (loved the Martian Chronicles and the Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes really got to young me). I devoured Asimov and loved him most of all the authors I was reading in that 9-13 yo timeframe. Psychohistory fascinated me as a concept. I loved his robot stories and novels. And I read End of Eternity and The Gods Themselves more times than I can count. Thinking about them makes me want to take them off my shelf and read them again. So yes, some of us definitely do like Asimov’s fiction. Nobody’s work does it for everyone, though. And there are enough authors out there, especially today, that anyone should be able to find ones that click for them and shouldn’t waste time with ones that don’t.
I read the original post and thought, hm, maybe I’ll reread some Heinlein novels. But then I read the comments, and I think y’all are right: the Suck Fairy would make an appearance. I didn’t read Lovecraft when I was younger, but tried recently and couldn’t get past the very problematic premise and parts and everything. I suspect trying to read many of the Heinlein novels now would be the same.
Still, “And He Built a Crooked House” is one of the short stories that’s stayed with me the longest. I read in middle school, and didn’t even remember it was a Heinlein story, tbh. I remember loving the description of the window that looked out into nothing – it blew my mind.
And thank you for the various YA recs! Yay, more (non-Suck-Fairy) reading!
(PS: sometimes I feel like the only one who can’t read Austen. Like, I know she’s good, but I cannot get into the stories. I’ve tried just so I can have reasonable conversations about books with ppl and cannot manage it. Is this how others feel (or felt at the time) if they didn’t read Heinlein but wanted to nerd out about SF with others?)
@ David A. W.:
“Little girls, like butterflies, need no excuse.”
“What a wonderful world it is that has girls in!”
Cue Maurice Chevalier and the creeptastist society in which “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” isn’t an instant red flag.
I dumped my copy of the Notebooks off at Goodwill decades ago, although it took me longer to dump “Time Enough for Love” — which went into the recycling bin.
For what it’s worth, I’m in my early thirties and Heinlein was a formative influence for me (and my god would I watch the hell out of an HBO series of Stranger in a Strange Land).
But I’ve also given up on (and in the case of Farnham’s Freehold, actually thrown across the room) several of his books because of the clueless misogyny. So there’s that.
I think Asimov in particular actually illustrates another issue with SF from that era, which is not just that the social mores and technological development were in very different places than they are now, but that the narrative conventions were wildly different in the genre than what modern audiences expect. I bounced off of the Foundation books several times before I could get through them despite loving a lot of Asimov’s short stories, just because the pacing and focus just seemed so off to me as a person who came into her literary tastes in the 90’s.
I apologize for the F.M. Busby comment; I was wrong.
@peridot2, Heinlein may have intended FF as his protest book, but when your protest book turns on the premise “Black people want our white women and want to castrate us”, your subconscious is showing and you need to shovel it back in the sub-basement where it belongs.
There is simply no excuse for this: ” I find myself opposed to most of the current civil rights drive on several different levels—while painfully aware that to be opposed is to invite identification with the faceless murderers who bombed that church and killed those little girls. It is tempting to be publicly pro everything the Negro wants just to be sure that one is not mistaken for a KuKluxer.
But I am still opposed to most of what they are demanding. On one level, it is no favor at all to the Negro to invite him to think that he can become the equal of the white man in money, in social prestige, in education, or in anything else where he is clearly not equal, simply by passing a law or laws. ”
A man who says that doesn’t get to say, “I wrote a racist book, but it was a satire of racism, really!”
Yes, I’m angry about this one. I hated FF when I read it, and reading that letter made my lifelong Heinlein fandom shrivel. So did the Patterson biography. I still remember with horror that in the period when Heinlein was divorcing his second wife, he and his third-wife-to-be were in extreme poverty, but Heinlein forbade Virginia from working because (and I forget his wording, sorry) a man should not be supported by his wife. Virginia wasn’t his wife, and they were living meal to meal, but he decided that his pride was more important than having Virginia eat.
After I read this letter, and the Patterson biography, I could no longer excuse the parts of the texts I’d overlooked as an ardent teenager, or papered over as an adult. The guy deeply believed things I find abhorrent, and they’re right there in the things he wrote. This isn’t “how do you separate the artist from the art?” it’s “Wow, look at all the parts of the artist that were right there in the art all along.”
But how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Again, on reread, the Heinlein narrative voice, which is often expressed as the voice of the Heinlein protagonist, alienates me. I don’t see myself in Heinlein women. I don’t see the men I love in Heinlein men. I don’t see any society I’d want to live in.
As a comparison with Heinlein: Kipling, in my rereads, retains the vivid environments and multifaceted characterization, but the White Man’s Burden and ardent support of colonialism are, “of their time” not withstanding, horrible. I sat down and read “Kim”, a shared favorite, to my dying father in the hospital, and the fourth damned sentence explained that even though Kim was half-caste, he was white, and therefore superior. I still love Kipling, but I can’t glide past that sentence the way that I casually did as a teenager and younger adult. I strongly recommend Salman Rushdie’s essay, “Kipling”, in _Imaginary Homelands_. Rushdie grapples with Kipling’s keen, personal observation of India coupled with ardent colonialism: Rushdie both loves and is infuriated by him.
Back to characterization. @megpie71 brings up Terry Pratchett. Starting at least as early as _Equal Rites_, Pratchett characters are people. They have flaws and virtues, and characters who are comedic walk-ons in one book can become protagonists of the next, because Pratchett can bring out the rounded person who expresses those flaws and virtues. There aren’t any throwaway walk-ons in Pratchett. The whole point of (for instance) Guards! Guards! is to look at the lives of the people who are referred to, but never present, in swashbuckling movies and novels. When the Suck Fairy inevitably visits Pratchett in some way, people will still want to find out what Sam Vines did, because he’s complex and interesting and funny. I’ve been saying for decades (oog) that Pratchett is the Dickens of his age, with the bonus ability to write convincing women.
tl;dr: In my reread, Heinlein’s writing virtues — page-turning plotting and a passion for science, space explorers, and exploration– are no longer extraordinary in a 21st-century context, while his vices — severely dated social milieux and stereotyping — are.
Yipes, I wrote a novella in the comments and it (rightly) got flagged for moderation. @Susan, lots of people bounce off Austen hard. The officially-approved canon is enormous, getting bigger with every decade, and nobody loves every single corner of it. Hear me rant about Hemingway some time or, more likely, slowly back away. It’s actually frustrating being an Austen-lover in an era of inescapable Austen, not least because I want to talk about the books, and argue why Persuasion is better than Emma.
@aebhel: Yes, exactly re: Foundation and similar. I didn’t find the books offensive, but there was no way in for me–they felt like textbooks rather than novels.
@Rene, on Lackey: Oh, for sure. I loved the early Valdemar books at twelve/thirteen, in the mid-nineties; not even four or five years later, I was re-reading them and rolling my eyes a little. Yes, Rape is Bad and Abuse is Bad and Gay People Are People WE GET IT JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.
And then I read some of the more, er, guy-oriented SF of the time or slightly before and was like “…oh right I guess these messages were actually startling and necessary back then. JFC, The Past.” (I feel the same way about the earlier Lifetime stuff these days.)
One of the difficulties of assessing Heinlein, compared with Clarke, Asimov and the others of his time, is that generally, Heinlein wrote about adult relationships, sex and politics, and they did not.
Clearly many of the novels were ‘thought experiments’: M’learned colleague has pointed out above that ‘Farnham’s Freehold’ was a well-intentioned ‘boot’s on the other foot’ novel that fell horribly flat. Likewise a lot of his sexual politics, in particular, fall horribly flat today, because he made the cardinal mistake that Asimov and Clarke never did, of having women as major characters, and writing about adults having sex.
This means, weirdly, that the other writers of his era have not dated so badly. There are virtually no women, people of colour, people of alternative sexuality etc. in the other books of that era, so the writers manage, miraculously, to not say too many bad things about them. Of course if you’re going to write about those things, your writing will date, and some of the dodgy sides of your thinking will come through, but thank god SOMEONE was writing about it!
I don’t agree with the politics of Starship Troopers, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress or Stranger in a Strange Land, but it is immediately apparent that they are proposing very different societal and political systems, so they cannot fully reflect the politics of the author. I found them all very thought-provoking at the time (I was about 10-12 when I read them), and I didn’t find his views on homosexuality as problematic as, say, Frank Herbert’s later inexcusable ones, especially as Heinlein’s mellowed over time – I really liked the easy bisexuality of ‘Time Enough for Love’, for example. I’d rather be a ‘sad in-betweener’ in an otherwise reasonable discussion of sex between men than someone who’s ‘gone terminal about the survival of my race’.
It was incredibly good for me as a young adult to read about people having sex and having political views. No, I didn’t, and don’t, agree with a lot of Heinlein, but I admire him for his daring, his forthrightness and his willingness to put forward ideas in this area. As he says in Double Star:
Take sides! Take sides! Always take sides! You may sometimes be wrong, but the man who never takes sides is always wrong!
Posting twice in a row to agree with Madame Hardy: Persuasion is better than Emma. Just about everything Austen wrote, IMO, is better than Emma, which has the least likeable main character of any of her novels. (I mean, I also don’t have positive thoughts about Marianne Dashwood, but Eleanor makes up for that.)
Heinlein was like Shakespeare.
At 1:14 AM someone said Shakespeare, and his play Merchant of Venice, were anti-Jewish. Well, not according to Jewish columnist Harry Gold in 1961
@isabelcooper: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Well, it worked. My major Emma problem is that I can’t take the comedy of embarrassment.
@Ash Charlton: “There are virtually no women, people of colour, people of alternative sexuality etc. in the other books of that era” Assuming “that era” is the 1940-1950s, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, CL Moore, and so on are full of well-rounded women. Moving slightly forward, Marion Zimmer Bradley (spit) had a substantive focus on alternative sexuality, and Samuel Delany’s first novel was published in 1962. Norton’s juveniles, at least, are full of people of color. My brain is failing me on ’50s writers of color, because I am shamefully underread. If you don’t restrict yourself to English-language and English-milieu fiction, there’s a lot of 1950s stuff going on in Japan, especially in manga.
I look at Heinlein and think “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?”
Much of Heinlein’s style–the line-by-line writing, as distinct from the SF-specific craft exemplified by the famous dilating door–is firmly rooted in the popular fiction of the 1930s. As, say, Dickens’ style is rooted in mid-19th-century British journalism and popular fiction. When I started reading Heinlein at age ten in 1955, many of his pop-culture references were already becoming obscure–I got familiar with them partly by watching old movies and reading pre-WW2 mysteries and partly by listening to my father’s jokes. Reading an old text is always an exercise in time travel, and contemporary readers who have problems with Heinlein on the basis of style are going to find reading work from any period outside their own hard going. (I see this all the time from my wife’s university students, for whom the “olden days” start sometime after the Reagan Administration.)
I remember enjoying Starship Troopers–and arguing with it. Finding Stranger interesting but nothing like head-exploding. (Decades later I got to review the uncut version. Pretty much the same reaction.) As SF/F became one of my areas of academic specialization, I recognized his central position in the development of American SF–I thought of him as the Unavoidable Man of the field. I was present at his Guest of Honor speech at the 1976 Worldcon–and disagreed with it. At the time I had just completed a 10,000-word essay on Time Enough for Love, blurbed as a “capstone” work, and which I did see as a deliberate summation. Forty-some years on, I still see it that way.
Of course, none of this means that any part of Heinlein’s output has a future as pleasure reading for the broader SF audience. How many fans of, say, Patrick O’Brian are going to backtrack the nautical adventure genre to Marryat, Henty, and Ballantyne–hell, even to Stevenson? But anyone interested in the historical range of SF can’t afford to dismiss Heinlein, no matter what bits might be off-putting here and now.
I don’t know whether Heinlein meant Farnham’s Freehold as satire–but if he did, it’s an argument against his writing skill, given that almost nobody read it that way.
Also, I can’t come up with any “it’s satire” argument that would justify the bit where a pregnant woman, finding herself alone in the wilderness with her immediate family, plus two friends of theirs, blatantly propositions her father on the grounds that she needs a protector, and “incest is better than miscegenation.” That’s Heinlein’s fetish coming out again.
That was the one book (out of several) that had me going “oh god” to myself in the Readercon panel, a couple of decades ago, on “judging a book by page 117.” I recognized it maybe two-thirds of the way through the page, and then started looking around at the audience, seeing other people’s moments of horrified recognition.
(The serious point of that panel was that a lot of people can write a good few opening pages, but they may not be much like the rest of the book, so a random page from somewhere in the middle is a better test of whether you’ll actually like the writing. I still use that sometimes, when I’m browsing in a physical bookstore or library rather than taking a friend or reviewer’s suggestion and ordering a book online.)
I’m another guy who grew up loving Heinlein. Up through about 1968 he was my fave–I started to fall away with FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD and THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, which I did not like as much as I wanted to, and became indifferent after the incredibly tedious I WILL FEAR NO EVIL and TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. I also ended up a social democrat, so his rather McKinleyesque politics leave me cold, and his portrayal of sexual relationships has dated badly. But he was influential on my sf, as would be evident to any Heinlein completist who has read my THE MOON AND THE OTHER, and his influence is there even in writers who have never read him. The best of his work (for me, that’s pre-STARSHIP TROOPERS) holds up, if you allow for some creakiness in the social assumptions and tech.
Timing-wise, it could not have been more apropos – PK Dick’s Electric Dreams got renewed for a second season yesterday. More PKD short story adaptations are on their way. 10 of his stories were adapted in the first season.
During my lifetime, Heinlein adaptations are limited to Starship Troopers, Red Planet (in a poor animated adaptation, IMO), All You Zombies, Puppet Masters and Jerry Was a Man. A Heinlein short story adaptation series would go a long way to re-energizing his relevance.
But, yeah, his legacy might be well served by, um, de-emphasizing some of the squick. Is “If you clone yourself but make them female, then have sex with the clones, is it masturbation or incest?” really a question that requires an answer?
Movie Starship Troopers (mst) versus Novel Starship Troopers (nst).
The thing that comes to mind is an analysis by Lindsay Ellis about how different movies criticize nazis and how some do it better than others. She talks specifically about mel brooks portrayal of nazis as buffons and how “American History X” tried to portray them. Both are critical of nazis. Brooks in general. And AHX in that Ed Nortons character is a neonazi who sees the error of his ways and tries to keep his brother out of it and fails.
Both are critical of nazism, but Brooks always uses imagery that nazis hate. They are dressed like buffoons. They look like morons. AHX used imagery of nazis that nazis actually like. Nazis didnt like the story in AHX, but they like the fact that Norton looks like a bad ass, has ripped abs, looks sexy and tough, etc. And nazis can adopt the imagery and ignore the message.
I am not sure if MST does this or not. On one hand, all the main characters are pretty. 90120 in space seems accurate. But then again, none of them can act worth a damn, so maybe the still shots are ok to look at, but watching and listening to a single stilted word come out of any of the pretty face characters makes me want to stab my eyes out. I am not entirely sure that wasnt exactly what verhoeven wanted.
And it feels like verhoeven put just enough “camp” in the movie that its hard to take the characters seriously. I mean, they talk tough, but they look like they got their military clothes at an iparty store, their rifles are completely inneffective (hundreds of rounds to kill one bug), and their tactics are laughable (the circular firing squad around several bugs made me laugh out loud when I saw it). The characters love to talk tough, but they are clearly idiots, on every level. They are pretty to look at, but their characters are exactly skin deep.
The novel is not like that at all. The characters are presented in a serious manner, they are “effective” at their jobs, johnny has some character development that feels believable. When I watch the scene in the movie where Johnny gets promoted, I always chuckle for how absurd it is portrayed. Clearly these people are idiots playing army.
Did Verhoeven mean to do that? I am not entirely sure. I have heard some stories about MST that he never read the entire novel, but then again, if you read maybe thirty pages, you get what a fascist book it is.
And I also think of a movie by verhoeven that hits a lit of the same notes. Robocop. I think i read somewhere that verhoeven liked peter weller under the suit partly because he had a pretty mouth and that was the only thing visible when he had the full suit on. Bob Morton was a yuppie, pretty boy. (ish) who was a complete ass. Dick Jones and the Old Man were father/grandfather figures who were also sociopaths.
And then theres the scenes like the ad for “nuke em, get them before they get you”, “pakistan is threatening my borders!”, and the news announcement for the laser satellite that misfired and killed a former president.
The movie plays in the realm of pretty faces and ultra violence and blood, but at the same time mocks it and society along the entire way.
@Susan E: The good news with Lovecraft is that you can find people taking his genuinely good idea, cosmicism or cosmic horror as a consciously cultivated ambience, and using it with vastly better prose, awareness of the world, and etc. Caitlin Kiernan, Laird Barron, Thomas Ligotti, and a lot of others are out there writing stories that do his thing more thoroughly and interestingly than he ever could. (And he was very aware of his own creative limits, though not of his bigotries.)
Since there’s no one Heinleinian idea that’s so fundamental to his work, nobody’s in quite the same relationship to Heinlein.
@Russell, I think you’re overgeneralizing a bit with “contemporary readers who have problems with Heinlein on the basis of style are going to find reading work from any period outside their own hard going.” The canon, as I mentioned above, is a big old galaxy, and nobody likes all of it.
A significant subset of American youth are wildly enthusiastic about manga and anime, and have sought out bits and pieces of Japanese culture in order to understand those better (often to dubious effect, but ask me about all the pop-culture interpretations of medieval history). Some of that subset goes on to read actual Japanese and Chinese histories, myths, and legends in translation. A very few of those go on to learn Japanese or Chinese. People, including young people, are willing to make the effort to read outside their native cultures and times if there’s something there that entices them.
Anybody is allowed to have an allergy to a particular style without therefore rejecting all of the past. I read (in translation) Sei Shonagon and the Tale of Genji, even though I wouldn’t live in Heian Japan for all the [insert your amusing analogy here, this space for rent]. I bounce hard off almost every 18th-century English novel. The first doesn’t make me cultured, and the second doesn’t make me uncultured.
A while back on this thread patcadigan wrote there was a gay couple in Tunnel In The Sky. I believe she’s thinking of the character that was a girl who passed herself off as a boy because she thought it safer. The protagonist (Rod) was a little gullible. After she “outed” herself as a girl Rod’s friend Jimmy married her.
Assuming “that era” is the 1940-1950s, Leigh Brackett, Andre Norton, CL Moore, and so on are full of well-rounded women.
Speaking as someone who not too long ago reviewed fifty Andre Norton novels, if we’re talking _specifically_ pre-1960, then no, Norton didn’t particularly have a lot of women characters in her books. The Solar Queen stories in particular could be taken as evidence humans reproduce by asexual budding.
This changed with 1965’s Year of the Unicorn. To quote Norton
(…) it was my wish to spin a story distantly based on the old tale of Beauty and the Beast. I had already experimented with some heroines who interested me, the Witch Jaelithe and Loyse of Verlaine. But to write a full book from the feminine point of view was a departure. I found it fascinating to write, but the reception was oddly mixed. In the years now since it was first published I have had many letters from women readers who accepted Gillan with open arms, and I have had masculine readers who hotly resented her.
Thanks for the correction, James!
To the Greeks, citizenship was precious, not a scrap of paper, not merely voting every four years for others to be the government, but was an going willingness to be uncomfortable and take responsibility. Forget the couch.
The Greeks you’re referring to were the tiny minority of landowners/citizens. The vast majority of Greeks were disenfranchised, possibly slaves, and if they were women, largely without social or political rights. I really wouldn’t hold them up as exemplars.
A point to consider, and which you make well, is that society changes. In particular, the social mores change, and with them our view of the authors.
Case in point — Marion Zimmer Bradley. While I liked Heinlein and Asimov as a kid (I’m in my mid 50s), what really caught my eye in terms of developing a universe and a history were MZB’s works, But now, four decades later, I know a great deal more about her than I did when I was a teenager and first picked up Heritage of Hastur. While the free-love culture of the 1960s and 1970s accepted the swinging lifestyle and open marriage that we all knew about, now we know about other, less savory parts of how she lived that lifestyle. I cannot go back and read those books today the way I did in my teens and 20s because of those misdeeds — indeed, knowing what we know now makes the exploration of teenage sexuality that we found revolutionary back in the day now comes across as gross because we know of the victimization of young people she was an active part of. Can I really tell a student (I teach high school) that she should read Mists of Avalon?
Which brings us back to Heinlein. In the half century or so since his greatest works (and three decades since his death), we’ve seen Heinlein’s novels become dated and the man himself become a patron saint of the libertarian portion of our political spectrum. Can we really view him as we did when we first met him back during our yout? Can we expect the next generation to embrace him as we did? I don’t think we can. At the same time, he is one of the titans — but as with titans of other literary genres, does he remain accessible to newer generations? Moreover, do some of the more controversial aspects of his writing necessarily lead to our setting certain of his works to the side because of them?
Well said, DAV1D. Also, Athens wasn’t Sparta wasn’t Melos. Spartan women had lots of rights; Spartan helots didn’t. Athenian women were pretty much cloistered. It came as a nasty shock to me when I realized, as an adult, that the Greek democracy that had been such a stock of my elementary-school history education had no place for me at all, unless as a hetaera.
Heinlein is one of the most important writers in all human history. I would hate to see one of his major novels adapted for TV but I think Friday or the related novella “Gulf” have the bones of a good series that could be fleshed out with creative license. Making a movie out of Stranger would be a fiasco. I have heard a new Starship Troopers is in the works…
@ Manuel: When I was reading ST, it took me a while to decode “bought the farm”. I think Heinlein has somebody expand on the meaning at some point, and it was about how a lot of the men talked about buying a little farm after finishing their term of service, and therefore when someone died in battle he was referred to as “having bought his farm”. This made sense to me, and I’ve never wondered about the further antecedents of the term.
@ Beth: Oh, man. If it wouldn’t be completely off-topic, I could rant on for paragraphs about the high regard in which Gigi was held. (Although I have to admit that “I Remember It Well” still makes me smile.)
@ isabelcooper: I call that “The Mercedes Lackey school of heavy-handed social commentary”. OTOH, I also consider Lackey to be a good storyteller, and whether or not the latter overrides the former varies from book to book. Some of her Valdemar books I return to regularly, but the one Elemental Masters book I bought wound up in the resale pile immediately on finishing.
@ Mme Hardy: I look at Heinlein and think “Something is happening here but you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?”
If that’s supposed to be a Bee Gees reference it’s a little off, but I agree with your point.
“When you say Dylan, he thinks you’re talking about Dylan Thomas, whoever HE was.”
Oh yes. There is no way one can rationalize Farnham’s Freehold as a good book — or, putting it in the context of the question, an influential one. Like you, I am somewhat skeptical of after-the-fact claims that it was satire. Authors retcon their artistic histories and intents, all the time! Sometimes intentionally sometimes not, I think it’s associated with being a highly creative person. When I see some pre-publication documentation that points to Heinlein intending it is a satire, I’ll take that seriously.
And if it’s not meant as a satire, well… Regardless of Heinlein’s overall status as an influential writer, in the future, you will find few readers or writers who will cite Farnham’s Freehold or I Will Fear No Evil as influential works.The broad consensus, even among the charitable, is, “Well, y’know, sometimes you just strike out.”
Vehement agreement about there being a wide variation in writing style and any era, including the 1950s. On average, science fiction of that period ran much more towards preaching this and expository lumps — “As you know, Bob… But we are talking the average. I can imagine there are readers who find that so distasteful that even a strong width of it — and it was hard to avoid a strong whiff — would be enough to turn them off.
But, so much variation!
Putting my lit crit hat back on again, three things that Heinlein excelled at, not in a good way.
(1) Preaching. Or lecturing from the podium, if you will. God knows, there are authors who did far more of it, but there are authors who did far less.
(2) Soapboxing, or preaching by proxy. Where characters don’t engage in believable conversation with each other but rather each gets up on their personal soapbox and monologues at the other. Of course they are just being sock puppets for the author who is looking for a different way to preach, but it plays out differently in the reading experience. For me both of them are flaws, but (2) irritates me far more when I hit it in the book than (1). Others’s mileage will differ.
(3) Character tone of voice — more correctly, lack thereof. All of Heinlein’s characters sound exactly the same — they sound like Heinlein. he is just the absolute worst at giving his characters distinctive voices. It’s a deficiency, but some readers, this bothers little or not at all. Others, it puts their teeth on edge.
If one or more of these things are the things that make someone especially dislike Heinlein’s writing, there are plenty of other authors who were nowhere as excessive as he was in these regards.
(And because, for some strange reason, not everyone reads and memorizes 140 comments — I said earlier that I consider Golden Age Heinlein to be good and readable prose, real pageturners. That doesn’t mean everything in the writing skill set was his strong suit. Nobody gets dealt the whole deck of skill cards.)
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Brendan: I, um, I’m at a loss with your first sentence. When I think of “most important writers in all of human history”, I think of Homer, the author of Gilgamesh, the authors of the Bible, Marx & Engels, Adam Smith, Frederick Winslow Taylor, and like that. Within the 20th century, I think of Betty Friedan, maybe Irving Kristol or Norman Podhoretz, Vaclav Havel, Simone de Beauvoir, George Orwell, Franz Fanon, and like that. How is Heinlein important in some way comparable to those, and to whom?
To answer 1:54 and 2:10 PM: My impression from the 1930’s textbooks was that Heinlein’s (and my father’s) generation were aware that Greece included non-citizens, and it was implied, at some level, that this was no excuse not to believe in citizenship here in the U.S.
When I hear that the founding fathers believed in the freedoms of assembly and speech, I immediately think of citizens having permission to mingle in the forum.
Today, alas, I can’t imagine women in Iraq having permission to assemble on a soccer field to discuss human rights.
What did Heinlein write that challenged the status quo of his day?
Starship Troopers, written at the height of anticommunist hysteria in the US, portrays the evil alien bugs as communists.
Stranger in a strange land shows men wanting more sex/magic and women giving it to them. The female characters in that book are cardboard flat.
He writes of comfort women, women with no agency, and little character development.
Heinlein was a good storyteller. But his stories reflect an author who never bothered to question anything beyond his own selfish wants or the worldview of his own times.
Some SF authors challenge readers to what it means to be alive, and what if any rights come with it. Some challenge the very idea of whether a machine could be equal to a human. Some challenge our ideas of time. Of alien life. Of love. Of gender.
Heinlein’s stories, for the most part, embrace some of the worst parts of his times without question. And the things he does question are whether he can get more sex.
What did heinlein challenge?
@Sean, respectable women in Athens weren’t permitted to mingle in the agora. They were cloistered at home. If you want to do whataboutism, Iraqi and Saudi women get to leave home more often than Athenian women did, and, at least in the middle classes, are much, much more likely to learn to read than Athenian women were. The glory that was Greece isn’t so glorious if you consider it from the perspective of all the people who didn’t have enough property to vote, didn’t have enough leisure to argue in the agora, didn’t have enough freedom to make any choices at all. There’s an enormous amount of pyramid under that shining tip.
@Lee: Ha! See, I’m almost the opposite–there are a lot of the Elemental Masters books I like, but the early Valdemar stuff…well, between when I got laid and when I passed my SATs, I lost my ability to give a damn about teenagers with low self-esteem. I can still enjoy the books (though I will maintain that nobody should be calling their horse, telepathic or not, “loverling,” ew) but I have to prep myself and/or skim those bits.
It turns out that search engines exist, and people who wonder what, for instance, women’s status is in Iraq and whether they’re having mass gatherings can go look it up. (I, for instance, learned that at the top of the list for such a search at the moment is a recent mass gathering of Roman Catholic Iraqis. Huh.)
Heinlein via Lazarus Long: “All societies are based on rules to protect pregnant women and young children. All else is surplusage, excrescence, adornment, luxury, or folly, which can — and must — be dumped in emergency to preserve this prime function.” Cool. Where *are* these women and children? Lazarus heroically performs midwife duties for Llita, and Miriam remarks how disgusting her infant daughter looks when smeared with strained carrot. Otherwise, they’re all in a different room.
The children emerge into view when they reach puberty and the girls, in particular, become eligible to spread their legs for any likely male, up to and including their own dads. The dating pool has expanded since Greek pantheon days, so we can safely, one hopes, move beyond the “kinked for their own daughters” mentality. I think Hollywood is too busy eating its own young to have heard the news.
The genre has expanded enough that American parochialism masquerading as universality has declined in influence. Certainly, keep Heinlein around — but heavily annotated.
The problem with Heinlein is the same as the problem with Twain: most people lack the context to understand the books and their satire.
For Twain, consider “The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn”. As was the case with the Tom Sawyer books (Twain wrote four of them), TAoHF was deeply satirical. Anyone from Twain’s generation would have understood that the instant that Huck and Jim headed to New Orleans to avoid Huck’s being sold. Why? Because New Orleans was where rebellious slaves were sent to be sold; the practice was the genesis of the phrase “being sold down the river”. Similarly, the dolphin incident was a satire both on the then-current craze for the “Lost Dauphin” and on the then-current craze for “stretchers”.
For Heinlein, let’s consider Starship Troopers. Many of those on this thread have shown that they did not read it as Heinlein intended: both as an homage to the troops (though not necessarily their officers) and as a satire on 1950s America. Consider that when he wrote it, the US Post Office was America’s largest uniformed service and outnumbered the Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, Coast Guard, NOAA, and National Health Service (the other uniformed services) combined. Hence the repeated insistence in the book that the non-military jobs far outnumbered the military ones. Next consider that in America in the 1950s if you were male you have two choices: allow yourself to be drafted or become a felon and lose the right to vote. Heinlein just turned the situation around (volunteer or you can’t vote) as a way of pointing out its absurdity. A further hint can be seen in the various positions that he listed in the book. Every single one of them was something that conscientious objectors did in lieu of military service during World War II.
But since people today lack the background to appreciate the stories as satire, they get judged on whether or not they are entertaining. For the time, they were fantastic in much the same way that Buddy Holly and Dinah Shore were. But tastes have changed; Buddy Holly couldn’t get a gig today without significantly changing his style and Heinlein couldn’t be published without adapting his work to meet modern tastes.
JohnD, it’s been pointed out that several of us read Starship Troopers within a decade of its being published, and more of us did so within 15 or so years. We are of that time too.
In my public library are a few red collectors editions of Heinlein, with special forwards. Sf writer James Gunn, in his forward to the red edition of The Puppet Masters, says that Heinlein was constantly concerned with freedom, how (in my own words) freedom is taken, surrendered, sneaked away by fraud, and so forth.
If Heinlein is to have a legacy, maybe that is it.
I for one doubled my knowledge of totalitarianism by reading the melodrama Revolt in 2100, where the well brought up hero’s guilty reading of forbidden texts lead him to decide that censorship, even for a nice holy cause, leads to tyranny. His boss’s throw away line, (from memory) “We can’t all be our own Tom Paine” led me to read Common Sense. Paine’s work is still in print, while his peers are on microfiche, large because Paine wrote with simple Puritan clarity while others went in for ornate prose.
Sometimes I think that encouraging a public to be fit for citizenship and democracy, while these are worthy ends in themselves, are actually a means to freedom.
… And hey, as for the Greek city-states having feet of clay, I’m sure that when Confucius was going around to Chinese city-state kingdoms and telling the courts that in olden times people had better manners he knew he was telling a white lie. There is no reason we can’t tell our children both the truth and our ideals too, both at once.
May I comment again?
Speaking of U.S. blacks, and women assembling in Iraq: They can? Catholics can? Fair enough. But you may recall that before civil rights, on a warm summer evening, as blacks assembled in church for a Bible study, the white sheriff would come in the door, silently circle around, and leave again. Woe betide the blacks if instead of Bibles they had the Quotations of Chairman Mao.
Bruce Baugh, texte sans nom intelligent, you may be of that time but do you have the context? Can you tell me what the conscientious objectors did in Antarctica during World War II? Or what the earrings referred to in Starship Troopers?
As a parallel, consider Swift’s A Modest Proposal For preventing the Children of Poor People From being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For making them Beneficial to the Publick. There were many even at the time that it was written that took it at face value rather than understanding that it was Swift’s satire on how England was treating Ireland.
Unless you know the referents, you do not understand the satire.
An aside: Ctein: “Saturn Run is phenomenally good. Cost me a night’s sleep. Thank you.” Ditto. I did see the “hide in plain sight”, but that just seemed obvious to me. The entire story is fantastic. I need to read it again – I got it within a week of the release. I recommended it to folks at Costco. (I was pleasantly surprised to see it there.)
My favorite Heinleins:
Tunnel in the Sky: The fact the society was fine with sending teens off on an adventure with a fair chance of serious injury or death was a bit of a shock – and quite different to large parts of current American society. But a logical way to create a cadre of pioneer leaders.
Moon/Mistress: I have one hand. I don’t use a prosthetic, but Manny’s #2 hand was hilarious to me. I thought, and still do, that the moon society was very pragmatic. Obviously Australia in Space. Throwing rocks at the Earth was very practical. Liked the tie-in to Rocket Ship Galileo.
Time/Love: Liked it as a youth. Need to reread. Story of rescuing the girl child and their lives – I cry at the end.
Spacesuit: Rollicking good adventure. I understand the context of the society it was written in. But what a concept…
Starship Troopers: (book): He predicted the training and selection of all US special forces, especially the Seals. The reasoning behind the society has an internal logic. Personally, I think 2..4 years of public service in exchange for University (a modern WW2 GI Bill) would be very beneficial for society. The thing people don’t “get” is, in peacetime, *Any* public service would get you the franchise. Refer to the blind guy in the wheelchair. The book takes place in wartime, so it makes sense it would follow the military. Interesting weapons (30 second bomb).
Starship Troopers: (movie): If I ever encounter Vasshole, I am not sure I can be responsible for my actions. I know some of the special effects guys who worked on the movie – SF fans. They *begged* Vasshole to let them do the powered armor. No. I have ranted for hours.
Starship Troopers (cartoons): Fantastic. Made by professional animators who were also SF fans. Extended the story lines. Find them. Watch them.
Powered Armour: There are working prototypes of exoskeletons because of the load soldiers need to carry. They are also starting to allow paraplegics and quadriplegics to walk. Early days, great promise.
Citizen/Galaxy: Shows what determined, skilled people can do to correct great wrongs.
Space Cadet: I was born *way* too early. I was ready to sign up.
Puppet Masters: his horror story. Logical to start nudity trend. Pretty decent movie. (Sadly, no nudity :^)
Waldo: Created a new tech just in time for a need – nuke material handling.
Green Hills: Cry every time. Moon Crater named Rhysling. [quote] in real-life space travel, references to Rhysling and “the green hills of Earth” were made by Apollo 15 astronauts. They named a crater near their landing site “Rhysling.” This name has since been adopted officially. [/quote] from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Hills_of_Earth (Read it for RAH’s inspiration for the character)
I may be missing one more, but the juveniles are very dated and the ones after he recovered from being braindamaged are crap.
BUT – He invented two new technologies and predicted a military force training program. He may have predicted other technologies that we have not yet found the science for.
Sean, honestly, I have no idea what point you think you’re making overall. I just wanted to point out that there’s much less need for baseless speculation and guesswork than many people think, and that I was pleased to find the actual reality complicated in a way I didn’t suspect.
Also to note that “go check and let us know what you find” seems like a very Heinlein-esque approach to comparison/analysis.
As for the matter of who could freely assemble in the US, I note that two Mohawk high schoolers were thrown off the campus of Colorado State University two weeks ago a woman in the same campus tour as them found their quiet ominous and felt that their looks made it clear they didn’t belong there. Today, Sarah Braasch, a white Yale student with a history of doing this, saw a black fellow student napping in their dorm’s common room and called the campus cops to get the other student removed. Things like freedom of assembly and use of public facilities are still very much more contingent than they should be.
(I’m feeling depressed about the big picture for civil society, at least in US, the country I’ve always lived in. I grew up with the expectation that though much still needed to be done, it could and would be done by people of good will in cooperation. In recent years it’s been more of a struggle to keep too many gains from being lost again. But I acknowledge free that acute fatigue and chronic depression both skew judgment. I’m aware of myself as a physical person, whose thoughts don’t exist in some notional realm unaffected by the body.)
JohnD: One of the things I know is that I literally never heard or saw anyone seriously advocate for interpreting Starship Troopers, or any of Heinlein’s other big works, as satire until sometime in the ’90s.  That makes me suspicious. I occasionally play online with one of Alexei Panshin’s sons, and double-checked with him; his recollection is the same. Back to speaking just for myself, satire just isn’t something I associate much with Heinlein. Extrapolation to the occasional reductio ad absurdum, yes, but there’s an ongoing sense of “see, this is what it would be like” in his stories and novels that just isn’t how satire works. Satire aims more toward things like “see, this is how it couldn’t work” and “see, this obviously untenable condition is why it can’t be like that”. I always felt like Heinlein was asking me to take the premise seriously and see where it went.
1: I had several stretches in the ’70s and ’80s where I got to deeply immerse in unusually thorough collections of sf print media, both prozines and apas & fanzines, and to spend time with people who’d been active in sf fandom in places like Los Angeles for years and decades. I was just a teenager in the ’70s and a college student in the ’80s, but the fortunes of birth and environment let me go wade in the pools of sf fan and pro knowledge. Always been very grateful for those times, and things learned then turn up every so often in the darnedest contexts.
Now if there’s actual documentary evidence that a) Heinlein did intend his work in this way or b) any significant number of attentive readers found it so in his time, then I’ll look at it, when I’ve got some free time. But I’m not seeing it so far, and don’t feel motivated to exhaustively research the complete absence of relevant evidence for such a proposition.
Same here– I never heard the “ST is satire” shtick until waaaaay after the book came out (late 90’s sounds plausible). Absent any historical record to that effect, I consider this a case of “he coudn’t have been serious” wishful thinking.
And, no, in one sense he wasn’t. It’s not supposed to be a manual for society, it was exploring a notion — according to all accounts I know from the 60’s and 70’s (and Bob *was* around to ask).
Also agree on Sean– he seems to have a serious case of “whatabouts” Really, running well off track and not especially factual.
pax / Ctein
Has anyone else noticed that Lois McMaster Bujold seems to take occasional aim at some of Heinlein’s nuttier and nastier ideas?
In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein sets up a prison colony where, in the early days, men far outnumbered women, and speculated that the majority of these men would kill any rapist or attempted rapist, basically as a form of what we would now call virtue signalling, in the hopes of getting laid by the women thus protected or avenged. Outcome: a society where women feel safe all the time.
In “The Borders of Infinity”, Bujold features a similar prison camp, where many of the men occasionally gang up and go on rape sprees against a similar small minority of women, and nothing much happens to them. Outcome: a society where women feel unsafe all the time.
Which outcome seems more likely to you?
In various works beginning with, I think, Time Enough For Love, Heinlein features ethically-unimpeachable brain transplants into clones. Said clones are, in some unspecified way, grown to maturity without a single thought ever occurring within their brains, and thus no one is harmed when those brains are removed to make room.
In various works beginning with “Labyrinth”, Bujold shows a similar practice happening on Jackson’s Whole, but it’s made crystal clear that the clones are conscious, and the transplant process entails their murders.
Somewhere in Starship Troopers, as I recall, Heinlein makes a point about military officers needing real combat experience. In The Vor Game, Bujold ironically asks if the planetary government must therefore provide a war every five years or so, for the education of military officers.
In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Time Enough For Love, and probably other works, Heinlein makes several eugenic arguments, saying essentially that a society cannot afford too many of the “unfit” or “defective”. Bujold’s best-known protagist is the badly damaged Miles Vorkosigan, and in Barrayar, “The Mountains of Mourning”, and “Labyrinth”, she uncompromisingly takes the opposing position that those born with birth defects should receive medical support and gene therapy.
I cannot think of any other writer who has taken so many opposing positions to Heinlein in this way. It seems unlikely to be coincidence.
“Do the ‘Kids today’ still read his works? Well, in my experience, ‘Kids today’ don’t read, period.”
Well, judging from my equally unscientific sample — and the hit the overdraft takes when birthdays and Christmas roll around — they do so. To my rather pleasant surprise, they even read a lot of the same things I was reading at their ages. The problem I have with pushing Heinlein’s “juveninles” on the younglings is 1) they’re not that easy to find, at least here in my corner of the world and 2) they’re seriously variable in quality and even the best haven’t dated that well.
Again, I first read Starship Troopers as a young child. Admittedly I was an odd child. I didn’t perceive it as satire like Swift’s Modest Proposal (which I had also read) when I finished it. First, I thought the story itself was entertaining and the world intriguing. That’s why I read it again. But I did not perceive it as promoting the society in the novel. I walked away more with the sense that the novel took an idea, and not one entirely dissimilar from trends we have seen in human society, and in a fantastical setting pushed it toward where it leads. And that was a pretty ugly place. I guess I absorbed the book in a less serious, but similar manner to the way I did 1984. It revealed where societies could go, even if people feel otherwise.
Now I have no idea if that was Heinlein’s intent or if the novel actually expresses ideas about how he thought society should function. That’s never been a question that much mattered to me. I guess I’ve never been particularly concerned about whether or not the way I read a work of fiction corresponds to the author’s intent behind it. I read for myself, not for the author.
And again, I found it entertaining. I haven’t read it in decades, so I don’t know if I would still find it entertaining or not. But “satire” doesn’t strike me as the right genre even for reader experience. Maybe dystopian would be better, but a dystopia from the perspective of those in the story conditioned to view it as positive and normal.
… And hey, as for the Greek city-states having feet of clay, I’m sure that when Confucius was going around to Chinese city-state kingdoms and telling the courts that in olden times people had better manners he knew he was telling a white lie. There is no reason we can’t tell our children both the truth and our ideals too, both at once.
I’d rather not hold up the Greek ideals as a model to my daughter, only to have to concede that yes, the Greeks didn’t think that their ideals applied to women (and a vast list of other folks).
Johnd: “For Heinlein, let’s consider Starship Troopers. Many of those on this thread have shown that they did not read it as Heinlein intended: both as an homage to the troops (though not necessarily their officers) and as a satire on 1950s America. ”
What the everloving fuck? Heinlein himself says why he wrote starship troopers and it had nothing to do with satire.
SANE called for cutting back on nuclear weapons during the height of the cold war with communist soviet union. Heinlein hated sane and wrote Starship Troopers to explain why we needed nukes.
The alien bugs in Starship Troopers? Heinlein describes them several different times as “communist”. He describes them as having “kommisars”. They have a hive mind.
And the main characters? They fight the bugs wearing powered armor suits which allow them to use tactical nuclear weapons, which is in the novel explained as the only way earth can defeat the “communists”
Heinlein did not intend Starship Troopers as satire, he himself said this during interviews and other media. Heinlein truly believed Starship Troopers, with its fascism, its ultra violence, showed what he believed to be his version of utopia.
“Unless you know the referents, you do not understand the satire.”
Heinlein was a fascist. He most certainly was NOT satirizing fascism.
“In 1961, as Guest of Honor at the Nineteenth World Science Fiction Convention in Seattle, Heinlein would declare that with a certainty of 90% the future held just three possibilities: Russia would destroy us in a war; we would collapse internally and surrender to the Russians; or we and Russia would destroy each other, and China would be the victor. Whichever was the case, one-third of us would die. Heinlein advised his audience to build fallout shelters, stock unregistered weapons, and die gloriously”
The man was a kook
Going back to Asimov, briefly – I’m in my mid-30s, and I ADORED Asimov in late elementary school. (And got a couple, uh, curious ideas about sex from his one or two sex scenes.) I recently revisited Foundation, though, and did not find that it held up all that well. There’s a certain tendency in that era of SF for the author-insert protagonist to display his intellectual superiority by insisting on what appears to be a stubborn course of action and then being proven RIGHT. He is RIGHT because he is the protagonist, and all the naysayers around him are foolishly, foolishly wrong because they are not the protagonist. The protagonist’s decision is proven correct at the end, and is held up as proof of the protagonist’s brilliance, but the odds are always stacked so painfully obviously by the author to prove his insert character right that it’s kind of painful. (Martin’s Tuf stories have the same flaw.)
For example, the purpose of psychohistory is to predict the actions of whole societies. They say repeatedly that they can’t predict the actions of individuals. (It’s a great concept that I love, by the way.) But in each of the stories in Foundation, the entire society is clearly clamoring to follow one path. (Whether that’s giving in to the Four Kingdoms, attacking the Four Kingdoms, not defending the missionary, etc.) In each story, the protagonist is the single person who insists on a radical course of action that everyone else disagrees with. Then Seldon appears and declares that that radical action was totally the only correct and inevitable choice, which the Foundation naturally would have to choose. Asimov’s clever theory depends on the prediction of the movements of whole societies. But to keep the drama and prove how clever his protagonist is, each time a Great Man arises, and picks a course of action that the entire society disagrees with. It…kinda undercuts his point.
SF is and was written by nerds, for nerds. We feel like we’re the smartest person in the room, and we’re persecuted for it. But the early SF goes kind of heavy-handed on the wish fulfillment aspects, I’m afraid. And of course, only the white dudes get to be RIGHT.
Greg, thanks for some actual info.
“a pregnant woman, finding herself alone in the wilderness with her immediate family, plus two friends of theirs, blatantly propositions her father on the grounds that she needs a protector”
He won’t protect her as well as he can, to whatever degree he’s more capable of doing so than she is, simply because he’s her father? But he will if she sleeps with him? I really hope this was portrayed as a seriously unhealthy family dynamic but from the comments I fear it wasn’t.
“contemporary readers who have problems with Heinlein on the basis of style are going to find reading work from any period outside their own hard going.”
Not my experience. I vary widely on what older stuff I can read easily. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Middlemarch all worked fine for me, as did Out of This Furnace, if you want a completely different kind of story. For me, a lot of older sci-fi and fantasy is particularly unreadable, possibly because I care about characters more than anything else, and many of them seem to me to be about exploring settings and ideas through descriptions rather than through character development.
“I call that ‘The Mercedes Lackey school of heavy-handed social commentary’. OTOH, I also consider Lackey to be a good storyteller, and whether or not the latter overrides the former varies from book to book.”
Yes, this. Mercedes Lackey is literary comfort food for me. I know what I’m going to get in her books, but I also know I’ll like it and there will be enough variation to keep my interest if not to particularly challenge me. It’s like all the fun of rereads without the boredom :-)
Jethrien, that’s really well-phrased criticism of the Foundation series. Thanks. That’s useful to me, given my earlier comment about re-reading it.
Kaci: Me too, about problems with a lot of older sf not being a problem with older literature in general. I readily re-read Dickens, Melville, Mary Shelley, Homer (with an appreciation for different translators’ strengths), and so on.
I admit to getting kind of amused when someone accuses a writer like Lackey of being heavy-handed. Whatever the merits of someone like Heinlein, or Asimov, of Laumer, or any of a zillion others – many of whom I’ve liked in the past, many of whom I still do – surely delicate, nuanced commentary isn’t anywhere on the list.
Russell: “contemporary readers who have problems with Heinlein on the basis of style are going to find reading work from any period outside their own hard going.”
Starship Troopers, published 1959.
Old Man and the Sea, published 1952.
I hated starship troopers.
The Old Man and the Sea may be my favorite book of all time.
@ Scott: Maybe dystopian would be better, but a dystopia from the perspective of those in the story conditioned to view it as positive and normal.
That’s an interesting way of putting it!
@ Bruce: Re Lackey, two points:
1) She’s of a much later authorial generation than the people we’re discussing here. I think that makes it more noticeable when she’s whacking the reader over the head with MESSAGE; that style of writing isn’t as common as it used to be.
2) OTOH, I also always remember that her intended audience includes a lot of young people who are being actively abused (physically, emotionally, or both). When you’ve been heavily conditioned to consider abusive behavior as normal, or even loving, sometimes it takes that whacking over the head to make you consider the possibility that what you’ve been taught might be wrong. I’ve known a lot of people who say that their first clue was telling their college friends family stories and getting the “Wait, WHAT?!” reaction. It’s harder to get someone to the point of having that reaction internally when they don’t already grasp it.
The Old Man And The Sea is pretty awesome. Also:
Charlotte’s Web, 1952
Things Fall Apart, 1959
Childhood’s End, 1953
The Lord of the Rings, 1954-55
The Big Time, 1958
The Long Tomorrow, 1955
Naked Lunch, 1959
How the Grinch Stole Christmas, 1957
A Good Man Is Hard To Find & Other Stories, 1955
City, collected in 1952
The Affluent Society, 1958
The Authoritarian Personality, 1950
…and on, and on, and on. Not all books I’d say I “enjoyed” as such, but all ones I found worthwhile in various ways and have come back to repeatedly over time.
From the early 1960s onward, I read Heinlein as the books were published in paperback, so I was part of the contemporary audience. I’d agree with ctein’s take on ST–that it’s not satire, let alone Swiftian satire. It is, however, what I’d call “conjectural” in that it addresses ideas and possibilities that Heinlein clearly found worth thinking about. And some of those ideas were clearly close to his heart, particularly the sentiments about the military.
On the other hand, I did eventually come to see a big dose of George Bernard Shaw in Heinlein’s way of messing about with ideas–of tweaking conventional wisdom, of offering deliberately provocative notions, of inverting cliches. Probably Stranger was the first book that made the best sense if seen as working in that mode at least part of the time.
Academic analysts (I’m trained as one) may want to pick through the texts and letters and biographical data to try to determine which parts are closest to the writer’s own sentiments, which might be wish-fulfillment fantasies, which might reveal unconscious attitudes, which might be thought experiments, and so on. My suspicion, after sixty-plus years of reading the man (whose writing career spanned nearly fifty), is that the easiest labels are the least reliable–starting with “fascist.”
Re: Contemporary readers who have problems with non-contemporary writing styles (and, I might add, sensibilities and political/moral frameworks). They do exist–ask any English teacher. I dealt with them often during the two decades I taught college English, and my wife deals with them still, 30-plus years on. It’s not all or most, but enough to make a pattern. And of course there are plenty of readers–the majority, one hopes–who navigate and enjoy historically/culturally-distant texts just fine. Otherwise Jane Austen and Dickens (and Homer and Ovid and Dante and Shakespeare) would not still have an audience. (The “who” clause in my original comment is non-restrictive. Perhaps I should have added “solely” to signal the kind of readerly limitation I was describing.)
For Bruce B: Thank you for asking my motivations. I guess it’s like how just as some folks today don’t know the 1950’s culture (I was born then) so too some don’t know my parent’s culture. It’s past now, of course. SUNY provost Loren Baritz, in his masterpiece on Vietnam, said that the revival of citizenship is a pipe dream, but the alternative (is dire). So like I say, past. But I try to have sympathy for that time, and it helps me to understand Heinlein.
I am sure most people of previous times didn’t truly have the ideals of their times, just as most students at Hogwarts will never get school spirit. But as long as enough do, there are ideals. Sometimes people, like Heinlein, are kooks if they believe what their society says hook, line and sinker. God bless them.
I take some comfort in thinking that even if all my comments on this thread are chaff (in people’s eyes) then at least I did the wheat of directing people to a link to say that Shakespeare was not anti-Semitic.
Re: That Guardian review.
First–it’s the Guardian so you have to take their particular slant into account.
Second, when you read the essay you have to deal with statements like this:
“The novel is set in a society 5,000 years in the future, where only those who have completed a fixed term of military service are allowed to vote . . .” which, if you actually read the damn book, is not true.
Or this: “The various strata of the military, its ranking systems and customs are described with fetishistic detail. . .’
And finally, Heinlein is a fascist? Don’t show your ignorance.
But Spider Robinson said it best–