Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 � May 8, 1988) was one of the most influential authors in the science fiction genre.
He developed new themes, new techniques and approaches. He became the first science fiction writer to break into major general magazines in the 1940s and 1950s with true, undisguised science fiction, and the first bestselling novel-length science fiction in the 1960s. Amongst many other awards, he was the first to receive a Grand Master Nebula of the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, but spent his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early years of the 20th century. This was a time of great religious revival across America, especially socially marginalized areas such as Missouri. The outlook and values of this period would influence his later works; however, he would also break with many of its social mores, at least on an intellectual level, frequently portraying them as narrow-minded and parochial.
After high school, Heinlein attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating from the Academy in 1929, he served as an officer in the United States Navy until 1934, when he was discharged due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During his recovery he re-invented the waterbed. The military was the second great influence on Heinlein; throughout his life, he strongly believed in loyalty, leadership, and other military ideals. This attitude permeated his fiction, most prominently (and controversially) in the novel
Starship Troopers. His 1961
Stranger In a Strange Land was the first science-fiction book to become a national best-seller�readers who as a rule did not read SF books were interested in Heinlein's philosophy, as expressed in that novel, which transcended what was seen as the usual scope of such novels at the time, preoccupied with robots, flying saucers, and bug-eyed monsters.
After his discharge, Heinlein attended a few weeks of classes in mathematics and physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, dropping out either because of his health or because of a desire to enter politics, or both. He also worked in a series of odd jobs, including real estate dealership and silver mining. Heinlein was active in Upton Sinclair's socialist EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement in early 1930s California. When Sinclair gained the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 1934, Heinlein worked actively for the campaign (which was unsuccessful). Heinlein himself ran for the California state assembly in 1938, which also was unsuccessful (an unfortunate juxtaposition of events had Konrad Henlein making headlines in the Sudetenlands). While not destitute after the campaign�Heinlein had a small disability pension from the Navy�he turned to writing to pay off his mortgage, and in 1939 his first story, "
Life-Line", was published in Astounding Magazine. He was planning on retiring as soon as he held his mortgage party, but wanted a new car, a trip to New York, and a few other things. He then told John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, that he was planning to quit. He made an agreement to send a few stories he had on tap but that he would quit writing when Campbell bounced a story. When Campbell bounced a story, he quit and started to feel unwell. He became jittery and absent-minded, suffered loss of appetite, weight loss, and insomnia. He thought this might be the onset of a third attack of pulmonary tuberculosis. Campbell eventually dropped him a note, and when reminded of the conditions, said he would take another look at the story. He did so and asked for some very minor edits. When Heinlein sat down to do those edits, he suddenly felt better.
During WWII he served with the Navy in aeronautical engineering, then returned to writing. During his time there, he recruited a young Isaac Asimov to work at Mustin Field, where Asimov wrote the first two books of the Foundation Trilogy. He also got L. Sprague de Camp yanked from the naval commission he was headed for, to work there as well.
In the early 1970s, Heinlein suffered a series of strokes. Heinlein credited his recovery to the support of his wife Virginia and improved medical technology that he saw as "spinoff" from space technology. He went on to write several more bestsellers.
Early work, 1939�1960
Heinlein's first novel was Farnham's Freehold.)
After For Us, The Living, he began writing novels and short stories set in a consistent future history, complete with a timeline of significant political, cultural, and technological changes. A large portion of his work during the period from 1939 to 1961 consisted of juvenile novels. Some representative novels of this type are
Have Space Suit�Will Travel,
Farmer In the Sky, and
The Rolling Stones. Many of these were first published in serial form under other titles, e.g., Farmer in the Sky was published as "Satellite Scout" in the Boy Scout magazine Boy's Life. There has been speculation that his intense obsession with his privacy was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children, but For Us, The Living also explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle.
Heinlein originally wrote his first published book,
The Puppet Masters, which originated the idea of aliens taking over humans' bodies, as in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The novels that he wrote for a young audience are a fascinating mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually very intelligent teenagers who have to make a way in the adult society they see around them. On the surface, they are simple tales of adventure, achievement, and dealing with dumb teachers and jealous peers. However, Heinlein was outspoken with editors and publishers (and other writers) on the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle complex or difficult themes better than most people realized. Thus even his juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that make them readable for adults. Indeed, his last "juvenile" novel was Starship Troopers, which is also probably his most controversial work. Starship Troopers was written in response to unilaterally stopping nuclear testing. Even a relatively innocent book such as
Red Planet portrays some very subversive themes, including a revolution by young students modeled on the American Revolution; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as the use of weapons by adolescents and the confused sexuality of the Martian character.
Mature work, 1961�1973
From about 1961 (Stranger in a Strange Land) to 1973
(Time Enough for Love) Heinlein wrote his most characteristic and fully developed novels. His work during this floruit explored his most important themes, such as individualism, libertarianism, and physical and emotional love. To some extent, the apparent discrepancy between these works and the more naive themes of his earlier novels can be attributed to his own perception, which was probably correct, that readers and publishers in the 1950s were not yet ready for some of his more radical ideas. He did not publish Stranger in a Strange Land until long after it was written, and the themes of free love and radical individualism are prominently featured in his long-unpublished first novel, For Us, the Living. The story that Stranger in a Strange Land was used as inspiration by Charles Manson appears to be an urban folk tale; although some of Manson's followers had read the book, Manson himself later said that he had not.
Later work, 1980�1987
After a seven-year hiatus brought on by a series of strokes, Heinlein produced a number of new novels in the period from 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987
(The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, start out as tightly constructed adventure stories, but devolve into philosophical fantasias at the end. It is a matter of opinion whether this demonstrates a lack of craftsmanship or a conscious effort to expand the boundaries of science fiction into a kind of magical realism, continuing the process of literary exploration that he had begun with Stranger in a Strange Land. The tendency toward authorial self-referentialism begun in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough For Love becomes even more evident in novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, whose first-person protagonist is a disabled military veteran who becomes a writer, and finds love with a female character who, like all of Heinlein's strong female characters, appears to be based closely on his wife Ginny. The self-parodying element of these books keeps them from bogging down by taking themselves too seriously, but may also fail to evoke the desired effect in readers who are not familiar with Heinlein's earlier novels.
As in the work of other authors, in Heinlein's work there is little clear distinction between the themes of his work and the sort of philosophical views that he propagated.
In his book To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Heinlein has the main character, Maureen, state that the purpose of metaphysics is to ask questions: Why are we here? Where are we going after we die? (and so on), and that you are not allowed to answer the questions. Asking the questions is the point for metaphysics, but answering them is not, because once you answer them, you cross the line into religion.
Maureen doesn't state a reason for this; she simply remarks that such questions are "beautiful" but lack answers. The implication seems to be as follows: because (as Heinlein held) deductive reasoning is strictly tautological (i.e. never generates conclusions that were not already presumed in the premises) and because inductive reasoning is always subject to doubt, the only source of reliable "answers" to such questions is direct experience�which we don't have.
Maureen's son/lover Lazarus Long makes a related remark in Time Enough For Love. In order for us to answer the "big questions" about the universe, Lazarus states at one point, it would be necessary to stand outside the universe. (It is not quite clear why this should be so, but at any rate this is what Lazarus says. The usual warnings about mistaking a character's views for those of the author apply here, of course, but this opinion seems fairly easy to tie into Heinlein's own views as expressed in nonfiction and interviews.)
During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinlein was deeply interested in Count Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and attended a number of seminars on the subject. His views on epistemology seem to have flowed from that interest, and (some of) his fictional characters continue to express Korzybskian views to the very end of his writing career.
Heinlein's writing may appear to have oscillated wildly across the political spectrum. His first novel, For Us, The Living, consists largely of speeches advocating the social credit system, and the early story "Glory Road can be read as an antiwar piece, while Starship Troopers has been deemed militaristic, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, published during the Reagan administration, is stridently right-wing, with, e.g., the sympathetically portrayed first-person character referring to illegal immigrants as "wetbacks."
There are, however, certain threads in Heinlein's political thought that are remarkably constant. He was strongly committed to libertarianism, as expressed most eloquently in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which many consider to be his finest novel. His early juvenile novels often contain a surprisingly strong antiauthoritarian message, as in his first published novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which has a group of boys blasting off in a rocket ship in defiance of a court order. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the unjust Lunar Authority that controls the lunar colony is usually referred to simply as "Authority", which leads to an obvious interpretation of the book as a parable for the evils of authority in general, rather than the evils of one particular authority.
In contrast to the Christian right, Heinlein was opposed to any encroachment of religion into government, and pilloried organized religion effectively in Job, A Comedy of Justice, and, with more subtlety and ambivalence, in Stranger in a Strange Land. His future history includes a period called the Interregnum, in which a backwoods revivalist becomes dictator of the United States. Positive descriptions of the military (Between Planets, Red Planet) tend to emphasize the individual actions of volunteers in the spirit of the Minutemen, while the draft and the military as an extension of government are portrayed with skepticism in Time Enough for Love and Glory Road.
Although Heinlein grew up in the era of racial segregation in the United States, and wrote at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement, race per se was seldom an important topic in his work, with the prominent exception of Farnham's Freehold, which casts a white family into a future in which white people are the servants of African rulers. Heinlein enjoyed challenging his readers' possible racial stereotypes by introducing strong, sympathetic characters, only to reveal much later that they were of African descent, e.g., in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and
Sixth Column, in which the U.S. defends itself against invasion using a ray that only kills people with "asiatic blood;" the topic was pushed on Heinlein by an editor, and he was apparently embarrassed by the story later in his life. Tunnel In the Sky and Farmer in the Sky both contain negative depictions of overpopulation in Asia.
Although it has been suggested that the spider-like enemies in Starship Troopers were meant to represent the Chinese, Heinlein wrote the book in response to the unilateral ending of nuclear testing by the U.S., so it is more likely that they were intended to represent communism. Several of his stories, such as "Jerry Was a Man,"
"Red Planet," deal with the idea of nonhumans who are unfairly judged as being less than human, and these may to some extent be read as allegories for intra-human racism. A problem with interpreting aliens as stand-ins for races of Homo sapiens is that Heinlein's aliens generally occupy an entirely different mental world than humans. For example,
Methuselah's Children depicts two alien races: the Jockaira are sentient domesticated animals ruled by a second, godlike species. In his early juveniles, the Martians and Venerians are depicted as ancient, wise races who seldom deign to interfere in human affairs.
Despite his work with the socialist EPIC and social credit movements in his early life, he was an ardent lifelong anticommunist. Although it may be difficult for post-cold-war readers to reconcile the two, there was no contradiction in the political world of the 1930s between being a socialist and being a rabid anticommunist. His nonfiction includes a famous anticommunist polemic, published as an ad, titled "Who are the heirs of Patrick Henry?", and articles such as "'Pravda' Means 'Truth'" and "Inside Intourist," a travel article in which he recounts his visit to the U.S.S.R. and advises western readers on how to evade official supervision on such a trip.
Many of Heinlein's stories explicitly spell out a view of history which could be compared to Marx's: social structures are dictated by the materialistic environment. Heinlein would perhaps have been more comfortable with a comparison with Turner's frontier thesis. In Red Planet, Doctor MacRae links attempts at gun control to the increase in population density on Mars. (This discussion was edited out of the original version of the book at the insistence of the publisher.) In Farmer in the Sky, overpopulation of Earth has led to hunger, but emigration to Ganymede only provides a life insurance policy for the species as a whole; Heinlein puts a lecture in the mouth of one of his characters toward the end of the book in which it is explained that the mathematical logic of Malthusianism can lead only to disaster for the home planet. A subplot in Time Enough for Love involves demands by farmers upon Lazarus Long's bank, which Heinlein portrays as the inevitable tendency of a pioneer society evolving into a more dense (and, by implication, more decadent and less free) society. This episode is an interesting example of Heinlein's tendency (in opposition to Marx) to view history as cyclical rather than progressive. Another good example of this is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which a revolution deposes the Authority, but immediately thereafter, the new government falls prey to the inevitable tendency to legislate people's personal lives.
Struggle for self-determination
The theme of revolution against corrupt, nasty oppressors infuses several of Heinlein's novels:
* Residents of a Lunar penal colony, aided by a self-aware computer, rebel against the Warden in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
* Venusian colonists break away from earth in
* A student rebellion on Mars in Red Planet
* Cabal overthrows religious dictatorship in
If This Goes On
* Scientists overcome foreign invaders in Sixth Column
* Youths and mutants rebel against and escape entrenched authority in Orphans Of the Sky
The theme of self-making
The theme of self-making is taken to its furthest in the related books Time Enough for Love, The Number Of the Beast, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. We are invited to wonder, what would humanity be if we shaped customs to our benefit, and not the other way around? How would our humanity be expressed if we did not develop under the soul-squashing influence of culture? We would be individuals. We would have self-made souls.
Other recurring themes binding Heinlein's works together include individual dignity, the value of both personal liberty and responsibility, the virtue of independence, science as a liberating factor, the perniciousness of bureaucrats, the brutality of corporate power, the hypocrisy of organized religion, the objective value of Korzybski's general-semantics and the subjective value of mysticism