The Many Robert Heinleins We Remember

When I was twelve and other kids were getting religion, I got science fiction.  Robert A. Heinlein was the prophet of my faith—the Jesus that explained reality.  I was a geeky kid who moved around a lot because my father was in the Air Force.  Because my dad always worked extra jobs and I didn’t see him much, Heinlein and science fiction became the father figure guiding my adolescence.  Now that I’m older I can say using fiction as my Bible is no more practical than using holy books.  Substituting  outer space for heaven, and aliens for superior beings is just as crazy as seeking life after death.

I just finished reading the second volume of Heinlein’s authorized biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 2 The Man Who Learned Better | 1948-1988 by William H. Patterson, Jr.   Imagine, if you will, getting to read an authorized biography of Jesus based on his diaries—you’re going to want to read it, but it might reveal that your prophet lived a much more mundane life than revealed in his parables and gospels.


William H. Patterson gets to chronicle Robert A. Heinlein’s life by the details Heinlein left behind in file cabinets.  Sadly, Mr. Patterson died April 22nd this year, just before the publication of the second, and last volume of his biography on Heinlein.  Patterson was born a month before I arrived on Earth in November of 1951, and in a way that explains a lot, because I identified with his passion to know Heinlein.  For science fiction fans of a certain generation, Heinlein was a very influential writer.  Growing up I always hungered to know more about Heinlein, and wished that I had met him.  After reading this large, two-part biography, I realize it was probably well that I never got to meet my prophet face to face, or even correspond with him.  Heinlein was overwhelmed by his followers, and he really didn’t need another sappy fan bugging him, plus I probably would have pissed him off with my politics and beliefs.

Heinlein never wanted his fans to pry into his life, and this authorize biography reflects his wishes, and that of Heinlein’s widow Virginia Heinlein.  Patterson was given complete access to Heinlein’s papers and got to know Ginny Heinlein who died in 2003, and who was Heinlein’s pit bull protector in life and death.  Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is an excellent defense of Heinlein and a summary of his life through his papers, but not the kind of intimate biography that fans crave, especially if you were a true believer.


I believe William H. Patterson was completely sympathetic to Heinlein’s wishes for the most part, until the very end in Appendix 2, volume 2, “The Good Stuff” where he quotes letters from a woman that had known Heinlein during his breakup with his second wife.  I’m positive that Heinlein and Ginny would have hated this addendum, but it’s about as close as readers are going to get to an uncensored view of Heinlein in this biography.  And even then, the letters only have a few lines that hint that Heinlein had faults.

I liked Patterson, and his work, and I understand the constraints he worked under.  His biography of Heinlein provided a huge amount of details about Heinlein for me.  I subscribed to the Heinlein Journal when Patterson was publishing it, and I always envied him his access to Heinlein history.  I’d have loved to have gone through Heinlein’s papers, but luckily Patterson did all the work for me and put them into a very readable summary.  I’m very sorry that Patterson didn’t interview more people who knew Heinlein.  There’s a few, but not many.  I got the feeling that Virginia Heinlein told Patterson much of the glue that holds the facts together.  I would have loved to have heard other people’s opinions, but I assume that wasn’t allowed.  We’ll have to wait for Heinlein’s next biographer for that.

Heinlein and his books have always inflamed people’s opinions, and Patterson deals with many of the famous brawls in his book.  He carefully presents Heinlein as the rational man, while not giving other people their chance to have their say.  Patterson tries to resolve much of the criticism Heinlein has received over the decades, but there’s one problem.  If Heinlein was right, and rational, why did he get into so many personal battle of words?  The two volumes of biography end up being a long lists of incidents where Heinlein butted heads with other people.  As a blogger I know it’s very easy to get into arguments over nothing, but Heinlein seemed to take everything very personal.  Evidently he was an emotional man, because the book often mentions his anger, and that he often cried over romantic and heroic incidents.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading these two books, but I was also disappointed.  I wanted more information about Heinlein writing his books.  Patterson provides a lot of publishing information, but little about the content.  Usually when he did, it was about how Heinlein got the idea for each book.  Evidently Heinlein didn’t leave much in his papers about thinking his way through plots and character development, or what they meant to him later.

I wished the Patterson had included an Appendix 3, one where he interviewed Alexei Panshin.  Panshin was the fan I wanted to be.  He wrote the first book on Heinlein, Heinlein in Dimension, which Heinlein hated—not because he read it and disliked it, but because he hated Panshin and didn’t want Panshin to write about his life or work.  Heinlein and his close followers have always closed ranks in their hatred of Panshin.  I always thought Heinlein in Dimension was a love letter to Heinlein.  When USENET News came out, the carried on the grudge match decades later.  Panshin is mentioned several times in volume 2, angering Heinlein several times over a period of years, and it was obvious that Bob and Ginny hated to even hear the name Panshin mentioned.  Which is sad, because Rite of Passage, Panshin’s Nebula Award winning novel is as close to reading another Heinlein juvenile as I’ve ever read.  I thought Panshin deserved to be heard from in this biography, but I guess Patterson felt that Heinlein did everything to keep Panshin out of his life while he was alive, he wouldn’t want him intruding into his authorized biography after he died.

But this brouhaha explains a whole lot.  Heinlein was loved by millions, but Heinlein didn’t always love his fans.  Nor did he think the science fiction community understood his books.  The biography suggest that Heinlein tried to separate himself from the genre during the last decades of his life, and resented always being known as a science fiction writer.  Heinlein wanted to be remembered like Mark Twain, just an American writer.  I doubt that will ever happen.  Patterson works hard to promote Heinlein as a significant figure in the 20th century, but he wasn’t.

Heinlein’s books are still shelved in the science fiction section, and Philip K. Dick’s books were the first to be collected into volumes of The Library of America.  When Heinlein finally made it into the LOA, it was with one of his lessor known titles, Double Star, as one of nine science fiction books that the Library of America collected into two volumes to remember 1950s science fiction.  I’m not sure Heinlein is going to be remembered outside his hardcore science fiction fans like me.  Volume 2 came out June 3rd, nineteen days ago and it’s only #7,313 on Amazon’s Best Sellers Rank.

I often write about Heinlein at Auxiliary Memory but those posts get very few hits.  I guess the way I will remember Heinlein is not by trying to get to know the man, but by rereading the Heinlein books I love.  What’s interesting is the number of Heinlein books I keep rereading has dwindled over the last fifty years.  I find it fascinating when encountering other Heinlein fans that we all have such different favorites.  There are Heinlein books I hate that others love.  Whoever Heinlein was, and what his books meant, it’s very hard to figure out.

And do you want to know what’s hilariously ironic?  Heinlein in Dimension by Alexei Panshin, published in 1966, still gives me the best biography of Heinlein I’ve ever read.  The Heinlein I loved was reflected in the stories, and not the one who walked the Earth.  Heinlein hated Panshin with a passion, yet Panshin’s summary of his work up until The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is exactly how I knew Heinlein in my youth.  Patterson’s biography chronicled the writer, the man who married three times, often got sick, worried over bills, fought with his editors and publishers, had feuds with his fans, gave money to needy writers, built houses of his own design, but completely missed the magic of the books.  Heinlein in Dimension summarizes the stories and novels in a way that rekindles memories of the sense-of-wonder Heinlein I discovered at age twelve.

Heinlein and his true fans hated that Panshin pointed out there were clunky places in Heinlein’s stories.  The trouble is, if you’re a prophet and you and your followers think you can do no wrong, then I can’t trust you.  Heinlein would have been a much better human if he had just endured Panshin as an over zealot young fan, read his book and said “Thanks kid, good job.  You found all the holes in my stories, now go write you own books that don’t make those mistakes” and then just forgot about Panshin.  Panshin was Heinlein’s St. Paul, and all Panshin got for his love was a kick in the balls by his master.  Man, that must have hurt.

If you go to Google and search for reviews of Patterson’s biography of Heinlein, you’re going to read a lot of varied responses.  Heinlein was an elephant to all us blind folk feeling him up.  None of us ever see that he’s an elephant, but we all chronicle, sometimes in great detail, what we did discover from our fondling a small section of his hard hide.  Unfortunately, there are many Heinlein haters who only got to finger his asshole.  There was much about Heinlein I didn’t like, especially in the later books, but I saw no reason to vilify the man.  Like most of us, Heinlein did the best he could, and his best was often far better than most, but occasionally he made some fuck-ups, like we all do.  Too many in our society judge people only by their mistakes.

The complexity of Heinlein in my memories is vast.  We all need to deprogram ourselves of the religions that infected us in our youth, and Patterson’s biography helped me clean out years of clutter in my head.  Ultimately, we Heinlein fans each will remember a few books we loved, and eventually, the literary world at large will decide if any of his books are worth remembering at all.  I don’t think Heinlein, Patterson, I, or any of his other fans, knew, or know which Heinlein books will become classics in one hundred or two hundred years.  But I find it fascinating to imagine humans hundreds of years from now seeing the 20th century through Heinlein’s eyes.


Ultimately, I have to say that Heinlein convinced me that heaven is colonies on the Moon and Mars.  That’s the promised redemption of his religion.  The emergence of private space programs is the real legacy of Heinlein’s prophecy.  I don’t know if anything else matters.

Other Takes On Valume Two

JWH – 6/23/14

22 thoughts on “The Many Robert Heinleins We Remember”

  1. I too loved Heinlein. As a youth I felt he had all the answers. As I Reread him later on, I found his answers to be simplistic, shallow, and unsophisticated. I found some of his books much worse than I remembered. Only two stood the test of time. Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Perhaps because the first was a satire and the second, probably not Heinlien’s intention, was alai a satire. Both were very strong social commentary.

    1. Heinlein left a note claiming if readers loved three books, Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress then they probably got him. If they only loved two of the three, it was iffy. None of the three are my top favorites, so I obviously didn’t get him.

  2. A nice piece on what Heinlein meant to someone yours and Patterson’s age. Thanks for giving me some perspective on Panshin. In the brief mentions of his biography that I’ve seen, you’d never know Panshin was a Heinlein admirer.

    You’re about 13 years older than me, but when I was in high school Heinlein still exerted a great influence on a friend a couple of years older who unsuccessfully tried to badger me into reading Heinlein.

    It seems time, with your essay, Patterson’s concluding volume, and an explicit reference to some Heinlein novels in a G. David Nordley story, to read some more Heinlein. So I’ll be starting Double Star tomorrow.

    1. Double Star will be an odd one to start with, but it’s fun, and did win a Hugo Award. Another good one for adults from that time period is The Door Into Summer. However, my favorites are the YA novels he wrote in the 1950s. You might follow the link I gave to Heinlein in Dimension. The entire book is online.

      1. Oh, Double Star will just be a continuation of my Heinlein reading. I’ve read about a third to half of his novels, including the big three mentioned and most of his short fiction. I guess I don’t get Heinlein either since I didn’t like Stranger in a Strange Land.

  3. Hi Jim,
    thanks for your insights. I read the first volume of Patterson’s biography a couple of years ago and I will certainly read volume two as well (I may get it as a birthday present next month). I agree very much with you in that there isn’t much stuff about the creative process itself. I suppose you have read Heinlein’s posthumously published “Grumbles from the Grave”. That book does contain more information about the genesis of his books.

    1. Calling Heinlein a fascist is a shallow, uninformed and reactionary response that does not hold any water upon examination

      1. If people knew the reality of fascism they wouldn’t be so careless using the word fascist. One of my pet peeves is how hotheads on the left and right are so quick to call someone fascist.

  4. James, thanks for the inclusion. My review (RAH was a Dick) may very well mislead a lot of folks who simply read the title and cluck cluck over everything that they’ve been hearing about him the past couple of years.
    In fact, my review is really a screed against making quick, uninformed assessments of an author based on his writings – especially when the author in question was one of a cadre of Golden Age authors who saw their role as writing-through-thought-experiment.
    The reductionist and shallow reviews (attacks) on Heinlein have run the gamut from fascist to misogynist, bigot, racist, womanizer – all based on contemporary reads of his works, largely by people with some kind of socio-political agenda, none of whom ever met the author, most of whom have little familiarity with the body of his work.
    It boggles my mind that someone can read the views of one character in one book and make the assumption that that character, in that book, embodies the author’s personal feelings: what about the other books (that often present contradictory viewpoints), or even the other characters in the same book who express different views? No, those must just be characters because they don’t jive with what some want to believe.
    (Makes me wonder if they are still teaching critical review skills in school).
    So yes, I did discover an individual who was far different from what I imagined him to be (even despite having met him once, briefly) – he was too absolutist and contradictory for me to have ever liked him as a person, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was doing (and doing very well) what he said he was doing: positing a set of initial assumptions and then taking them to their logical (regardless of the outcome) conclusions. I wonder how many authors these days have such courage of conviction and the ability to write about things that they disagree with in such an honest and straightforward manner.
    If the critics have their way, our fiction will cease to have villians and antagonists because our writers will be fearful of having their characters’ own beliefs thrust upon them, regardless of what they really believe.
    Heinlein may have been a prick, but he was an honest and talented one.

  5. I agree that Heinlein’s literary reputation might dwindle to nothing in coming generations. It’s hard to say what will survive. For an eye-opening experience, take a look a century back at the bestseller lists and books that won literary acclaim from the critics. You’ll see a lot of names that have you scratching your head and asking yourself, “Who’s that?”

    Heinlein wasn’t one of the great figures of the 20th Century. But he was a great subject for microhistory — a lens through which to view most of the great events of that American century. That’s a great part of the charm of the Patterson biographies, particularly Volume 1.

    1. I have looked at old best seller lists and award lists and it’s amazing how instant classics become quickly forgotten. Microhistory is a good word. The history of written science fiction, a subject I find fascinating, will be a highly specialized subject that will always appeal to a handful of people. Strangely enough, movie science fiction will have far more historians.

      1. “Microhistory” is a word with a specific meaning: It doesn’t just tell the history of a small thing or unimportant person, but rather it attempts to shed light on a subject that is very much larger. In this case, Heinlein’s life parallels the history of the US in the 20th Century.

  6. Thanks for this thoughtful article. I was born in 1978, in Spain, and I grew up loving the works of another of the big three Golden Age SF writers: Asimov. His stories, his non-fiction, his rationality and the way he thought really appealed to me, and he had a big influence in my formation as a person. I was never such a big fan of Clarke or Heinlein. However, I think you are a bit harsh on Heinlein’s legacy. For someone who wrote in the 50s/60s… really, how many writers of that era are still read today? In many senses, SF writers have it tougher than fantasy writers or plain literary writers. Literary writers seek beauty in their use of the language. There are fashions in that field, of course, but the beauty of the language is more atemporal. Something similar goes for epic fantasy writers: magic, and the past societies that inspire most of it are less subject to change. For classic SF it is more difficult. The future they envisioned gets obsolete as technology and science advance in unforeseeable ways.

    I’m doing a read/reread of Heinlein’s juveniles here:
    I’m enjoying these stories and I really prefer them to his latter stuff (i.e. Stranger in a…). I don’t think they can be mainstream SF for young people any more: the technology and societies are too dated. However, SF fans have a long story of appreciating their roots, and Heinlein will always be one of the big writers of the Golden Age. You need him to understand the history of the genre. He will not be forgotten. He won’t be mainstream either, but how many 60 year old books are read nowadays by teenagers for fun?

    1. There’s a wonderful book on the Heinlein juveniles, HEINLEIN’S CHILDREN: THE JUVENILES by Joseph T. Major, with an introduction by Alexei Panshin. Major covers the same list of books you list at SFFWorld, and reviews each in good detail. Over at Jo Walton also has reread/reviewed the juveniles, and she’s written about books she thinks are like the juveniles. I think the closest novel like them is Rite of Passage, which someone recommended to you at SFFWorld already. If you search Google you’ll find a lot of SF writers have written about the impact of the juveniles on them when they were young. Those books meant a lot to many.

  7. I have long strongly suspected that the best insight to the transformation of Heinlein (from a warm, generous progressive person to a to what he became in his later years, which was a very complex and often unpleasant character and political mishmash that both friends and foes seldom get right) can be found in the Heinlein chapter of Isaac Asimov’s book of autobiographical essays (NOT his 2 volume autobiography “I Asimov. Find it, read it, and tell me what you think.

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