Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue with His Century – 1907-1948

If there was ever a big fish in a little pond, it is Robert A. Heinlein.  Science fiction is a very small pond, and despite all its success at the movies and television, written science fiction remains a tiny ghetto in the world of fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein is a towering figure in the tempest-in-a-teapot world of fandom, but outside that small subculture Heinlein is little known.

William H. Patterson, Jr. has written the first half of a massive authorized biography of Heinlein called Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue with His Century – Volume 1 – Learning Curve – 1907-1948. The biographical narrative goes through page 473, while appendices and notes continue through page 594, and the index ends on page 622.  This is a well researched biography, and as I read it, I felt I learned as much about American life from 1907-1948 as I did about Heinlein.  Patterson studied the politics and social norms of the time to put Heinlein in context, and that greatly enriches the story.

Now here’s the problem.  Patterson wants to make Heinlein more influential than I think he was, not an uncommon trait of biographers.  However, Heinlein had some very devoted fans, who after his death have become even more fanatical about the importance of Heinlein’s work.  This reminds me of Jesus and his followers after his death.  Most of what is attributed to the historical Jesus was actually invented by his followers.  This kind of remaking the real man into a miracle worker may be happening to Heinlein.

I’ve been following Patterson’s work on Heinlein for over a decade, first on newsgroup and then with his Heinlein Journal.  Virginia Heinlein selected Patterson and gave him access to Heinlein’s papers.  Robert and Ginny Heinlein had burned a lot of his papers after he left his second wife, but evidently there were plenty left, because this is a very detailed biography on Heinlein’s early life.  I can’t wait for the second volume.

Heinlein always seemed such a secretive person that I was expecting little about his actual life and more about his fiction.  Instead, Patterson’s biography is mostly about Heinlein, and surprising little about his writing.  Patterson talks about Heinlein struggling to write, but mainly in relation to Heinlein needing a paycheck.  The book ends just as Heinlein is starting to become more financially secure, so his story is almost one of struggling for over forty years to become a overnight success.  Heinlein overcame economic hardship and a lifetime of poor health to succeed and fail at many ventures before becoming a science fiction superstar.

Any Heinlein fan should love this book.  However, I think Patterson wants Heinlein to be far more important than he is.  If you look closely to Patterson’s sentences, especially in his introduction, but throughout the book, he adds a strong Heinlein bias.  Patterson obviously feels Heinlein is significant outside of science fiction and I have to question that.  Patterson says on page 15 of his Introduction,

And even among this select group of writers-cum-culture-figures, Heinlein is unique.  He galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century:  science fiction, and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement.

I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy this.  When you read books about the 20th century you just don’t see Heinlein mentioned, mainly because they seldom mention science fiction.  And the parenthetical statement crediting think tanks to science fiction, is bizarre itself.  And frankly, Heinlein’s impact on the counter culture, libertarian and commercial space movement has got to be extremely minimal.  The logic is almost equal to: powerful leaders drink whiskey, thus the twentieth century was galvanized by whiskey.

Heinlein was a substitute father figure to me growing up.  I love many of his books, enough to read and reread them.  I’ve read most of what he wrote at least twice.  Yet, I give him very little credit as to influencing me.  Heinlein was a major influence on science fiction, and strangely enough Patterson’s doesn’t show that in his biography.

Now I assume Patterson did this on purpose, knowing that so many other books have already been written about the history of science fiction, and no book has been written on the history of Heinlein the man.  Heinlein, and his hardcore fans always wanted to separate his fiction from the man, claiming readers shouldn’t extrapolate ideas about Heinlein from his stories.  I think this new biography will be the Rosetta Stone for decoding Heinlein inside his fiction.

Alexei Panshin’s legacy appears to be totally despised by the Heinlein fanatics because he offended the master with the first book on Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, back in 1968.  I think its still the best quick overview of Heinlein’s fiction from 1939-1966, but that Panshin book continues to enrage the Heinlein disciples.  They see it as trashing Heinlein, even though I thought it was a young man’s love letter to his hero.    Panshin’s later book, The World Beyond the Hill, does explain Heinlein’s influence during the golden age of science fiction, covering the same period of Patterson’s biography.  Both of these books won Hugos, although Panshin got a Hugo for fan writing while he serialized Heinlein in Dimension in fanzines.

Like I said, if you want to know Heinlein the man, read Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, but if you want to know about Heinlein’s influence on SF, read Heinlein in Dimension and The World Beyond the Hill.  Now I expect this will change.  Because the authorized biography has finally come out, and especially after the second volume appears, I expect a new writer to put all the sources together and write a new story by story survey of Heinlein’s fiction.  And if that writer is well read in science fiction, I think he or she will be the one to explain Heinlein’s influence on the genre.  Oddly enough, I wonder if that could be Alexei Panshin?  Boy, wouldn’t that piss off the hardcore Heinlein followers.

After you finish reading the Patterson biography, go over to The Critics Lounge and read some of Panshin’s later essays, especially “When the Quest Ended.”  Which biographer do you prefer, Patterson, the authorized explorer of Heinlein, or Panshin, the shunned fan? 

Heinlein’s real legacy is his impact on the little world of written science fiction.  When I was growing up in the 1960s most science fiction fans considered Heinlein the top dog of the field, but today you can ask young people reading science fiction what writers they love and often Heinlein doesn’t even get listed.  But that’s deceptive, because those young people often pick writers that were influenced by Heinlein.  Those writers are the true disciples and children of Heinlein.

As much as Patterson would like to think that Heinlein greatly influenced the counter culture, libertarianism and commercial space companies, I just don’t think he did.  Those are separate worlds and some of their members might have read and loved Heinlein’s books, but they had their own shapers and makers.

William Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein is a must read for anyone who loves Heinlein’s fiction.  We finally get to know the Wizard behind the Oz Heinlein created.  After finishing the biography I wanted to start with Heinlein’s first story and read them all again, till his last, and examine his writing in light of the new biography.

JWH – 9/6/10

5 thoughts on “Robert A. Heinlein – In Dialogue with His Century – 1907-1948”

  1. If you think his only impact is on science fiction fans, you need to talk to some engineers, and astronauts. Maybe you’ll get a little better information that way. Though I’m a Heinlein fan, and a Science Fiction fan, I’m not particularly mainstream in either of them.


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