What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 3, 2018

This month, I’m forcing myself to read a book I hate for a book club I moderate. The book is Friday by Robert A. Heinlein. I first discovered Robert A. Heinlein in 1964 when I was still twelve and in the 8th grade. By 1966, I believe I had read all his then published novels and most of his published short stories. He was my favorite writer by far, and I was a voracious bookworm. By the end of the 1960s, I was regularly rereading his books.

Then in 1970, Heinlein came out with I Will Fear No Evil. It was the first hardback I bought as a new release. I remembered how excited I was to delve into that book and just how disappointed I was when I read it. I was surprised and disturbed that I could dislike a Heinlein book. Heinlein never wrote another book I liked. His last seven novels, published from 1970-1987 were horrible reading experiences for me. My reactions ranged from bored to being revolted. I’ve never been able to even finish Friday or The Number of the Beast, and never even tried To Sail Beyond the Sunset.

What is strange, is I often encounter Heinlein fans who prefer his later books. When I was younger I assumed the Heinlein I hated was bad Heinlein, but can that be possible when there are plenty of readers who love the works I consider bad? When I was younger I also assumed Heinlein changed. In more recent years I wondered if I had changed. I pretty much loved Heinlein in the 1960s when I was a teenager. Heinlein was a substitute father figure for me because my own father wasn’t around much. Ultimately, in the late 1960s when the generation gap was at its widest, I think I rejected both of my fathers because of political differences. Heinlein and my dad both supported the Vietnam War, and I didn’t.

In the last few years, I’ve thought about giving Heinlein a second chance. Maybe there are good qualities to his “bad” books that I missed. Maybe I am wrong in thinking books can be judged good or bad. Maybe I should also reread the “good” books to see if what I disliked about Heinlein was there all along and I just skimmed over those aspects.

I’ve also thought that Heinlein devolved as a writer as he aged. He did have medical problems that affected his thinking in later years, but supposedly surgery fixed that. Heinlein claimed until to the end of his life that Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) were his best books, the ones that defined his personal philosophy, and the ones he wanted to be remembered and judged by. As I’ve aged, I’ve turned against all his 1960s novels. I now consider his novels published from 1952-1959 as his best, from The Rolling Stones to Starship Troopers. I tend to like many, but not all, of his shorter work published from 1939-1959.

I’m not alone. Many science fiction fans my age prefer the earlier Heinlein. Heinlein was proud of the young-adult novels he wrote in the 1950s, but I don’t think he felt they represented his insight and art. When he went to G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1959, Heinlein felt he had been freed to write what he wanted. I think that’s when he saw himself as a mature artist and wanted to be respected as a philosophical novelist. I believe he wanted to be another Ayn Rand. I’ve only read The Fountainhead, and I’m not an admirer of Rand, so I can’t really compare them. But I know they both wanted to be influential. From Alec Nevala-Lee new book, Astounding, it seems obvious Heinlein was anxious to make an impact and disappointed that his success didn’t go beyond writing science fiction.

This month I’m making a concerted effort to understand Heinlein from one of his later works, Friday. It was first published in 1982, just six years before Heinlein died. Friday was nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Prometheus, and Locus award, but did not win any of them. Jo Walton at Tor.com calls FridayThe Worst Book I Love.” She fell in love with the story at 17, but always knew it lacked a plot. Walton says in the end, “Even as it is, I love it for its moments of clarity and beauty. I wouldn’t be without it. I taught myself almost all I know about how to plot by lying awake trying to fix the end of Friday in my head.” That’s far more generous than I could ever be, but then she’s much younger than I am.

I can’t forgive Heinlein for creating a woman character who could rationalize being gang-raped as part of her secret agent job but wanted to slowly kill one of her rapists because he didn’t brush his teeth and use mouthwash first. The story itself is high-minded about accepting different people but spends an inordinate amount of time on when to kill folks for their bad manners. Friday Jones is an artificial person (clone) and rejected because of it, so you’d think she’d be a little more forgiving about all the capital killing snubs she feels.

The conflict in the novel is as contrived as religion. The good guys feel like bad guys to me, willing to kill people for what I think are trivial reasons, but ones they judge as highly offensive. Heinlein never defines his bad guys. They don’t have a philosophy. They don’t have an agenda. They are just a supposedly evil existential threat, ruthlessly killing and committing bad manners. But I wonder if Heinlein’s nebulous bad guys are really us, good guys from a rational world.

The “Boss” character who seems reprocessed from Heinlein’s 1949 story “Gulf” and a secret agent version of Jubal Harshaw from Stranger in a Strange Land is one self-righteous sanctimonious know-it-all. I worry that Heinlein’s great philosophical message is this character’s beliefs? If that is true, then Heinlein’s art is only the conceited gospel of his opinions.

But I have my own faults as a reader to confess. I should have set higher standards for my favorite author long ago. I can’t separate my boyish love of science fiction from any discernment of great writing. It’s taken too long to realize that great writing should be those stories that enlighten me about reality and not the fiction I most want to escape into.

The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system. That was my psychological substitute for religion when I became an atheist at age 13. Heinlein after 1959 gave up on space exploration. His fiction became all about rationalizing his personal philosophies. He gave up his ability to tell a story and create characters. Tragically, he took many of his old characters I cherished and turned them into puppet mouthpieces for this Heinlein philosophy. I never could forgive what he did with the Stone family from The Rolling Stones when turned them into sleazy swingers in The Cat Who Walk Through Walls. Even worse, they all lost their unique voice and became zombies speaking in Jubal-tongue.

But am I being too harsh on my literary hero? That’s why I’m rereading his later books. Maybe I just don’t get it. I’m giving Heinlein one last try. One of my other favorite genres is literary biographies. Most writers are tragic figures. Maybe I need to be more forgiving of Heinlein the man, and not judge him by his bad books. The literary heroes I replaced Heinlein with in the 1970s were Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Philip K. Dick, none were angels, and certainly wrote their share of sinkers. Maybe I need to approach Robert A. Heinlein like I do Jack Kerouac, as a deeply flawed human who tried to justify his existence with his writing. In some ways, Heinlein is my Bronson Alcott father figure, and if Louisa May could come to terms with her crazy father, maybe I should with mine.






17 thoughts on “What To Do When Your Favorite Writer Goes Bad?”

  1. Good for you going along with your club’s selection. I often see writers fade in their later years. Vonnegut certainly. Even Steven King says most people prefer his earlier writing. Is that age or becoming a caricature of oneself? Still most books by quality authors always have something to praise.

  2. I think it needs to be asked in this case,if Robert Heinlein could have been a great writer if he had pursued a literary career outside of science fiction.If he could have done so,I would assume that he could still have written science fiction,as authors such as Olaf Stapledon did,whose work was great.It’s seems obvious though,that Heinlein wasn’t as great as Stapledon,so would he have been a successful author in the other realm?I don’t know,but Philip K. Dick was a much greater writer than Heinlein,who was probably the equal of Stapledon,and could easily have been a mainstream author.This is the point I think.

    These comments aren’t meant to sound harsh,but I think your tastes just changed as you got older. You started to respect better writers.

  3. Hi James

    I loved the early Heinlein and still have, read and collect some of his early short stories and the young adult novels. I stopped reading him with Stranger in a Strange Land, he just did not seem interested in the same SF themes I was. Reading Alec Nevala-Lee, Astounding one sees the flaws of all four of the writers that form the main part of the book. But to some extent I also find Heinlein less interesting that say Asimov whose influence I see everywhere, his robot stories are still part of the dialog whenever one looks at cyborgs, AI or robots. Reading Well’s Murderbot series or Bank’s Culture series will the AI’s or drones often brings him to mind. His Foundation I see in many stores about traders or future histories. I just do not see the same engagement with Heinlein’s later themes (I still love Waldos) in works today unless it is the libertarian slant certain of his works might have encouraged. I tend I think to approach it from the opposite angle than you do, literary biographies show all the writers flaws and the more you look the more you see. People are not perfect (myself included) and the more I age the more it is driven home. I try to judge authors by their works rather than their lives. Otherwise many would disappear from my shelves. Lovecraft whose works I read, was a terrible racist. But he was also one of the most influential writers of the Weird Tales tradition. Many writers continue to work within the guidelines he created without excusing his flaws. Many now use them as a counterpoint in their own work. As someone who loves the history of SF I read works by many different people in many styles. Some works I read because of their important despite their flaws but I know the later Heinlein is for me a bridge too far. As long as I have my space suit I can happily travel.

    Happy Reading

    1. Good points, Guy. Asimov’s Foundation series came in #49 on NPR’s Great American Read recently. Heinlein wasn’t remembered. Of course, Asimov had his flaws too. He would have been roundly condemned by the #MeToo movement. And I thought about H. P. Lovecraft too. So many readers are trying to ignore his racism so they can save his books. I wondered if I should forgive Heinlein’s egotism in his later books so I can save the earlier books.

      Heinlein was the leading cheerleader for exploring the final frontier, but that all changed with Stranger in a Strange Land. I think that’s what I missed most about him. I wished his later books had been about space exploration and not about why to kill people for their bad manners, or group marriages.

  4. Interestingly amusing! I decided on agnosticism at 12. I learned the concept from SF. Atheism seemed as absurd as any religion but science fiction introduced ideas that I was not getting from adults.

    I think Orphans of the Sky was my first Heinlein book. The idea that a small group of people might be right about something while the rest of society could be totally wrong was the most amazing take away I got from the book. However I do not think I fixated on one author much and all of the authors got mushed into an SF idea space.

    Heinlein’s stories changed after The Moon is a Harsh Mistress but my thoughts became less malleable by 1970. The writing, the story and the ideas are somewhat separate and after 1970 the writing got more long winded and less intellectually interesting. Going bad is too extreme a description though.

    1. Orphans of the Sky which first appeared in the early 1940s was a brilliant science fictional idea. That’s what I wanted from Heinlein in his later years. That’s why I have a love/hate relationship with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s about a lunar colony and an emergent AI. That was fantastic. But the other part of the novel, the political part, was too preachy and sick.

  5. I was a colossal fan of Heinlein, via his ‘juveniles’. His other material didn’t really appeal, I guess because in many ways his philosophy diverged from mine. Harry Harrison, essentially, nailed it with ‘Bill the Galactic Hero’, which skewered Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’ to the point where Heinlein apparently never spoke to Harrison again. To a significant extent I’d call him more a ‘mid-twentieth century American’ author than a late one. Reinvention is a key to longevity; but while the hippie movement drew inspiration from aspects of Stranger in a Strange Land, I’d argue that Heinlein otherwise neither fuelled nor adapted to the shifts of the 1960s. Not in the way Kerouac did, for instance. I’d hesitate to call it ‘going bad’, though. In western culture we’re conditioned to keep developing our art or be viewed as stale; and in any event (on my own experience) authors want to explore new fields. Whether the earlier audience moves with the change is another matter.

    Could Heinlein have become a mainstream novelist? I think certainly; as always, the sci-fi setting was simply backdrop to current social commentary and themes which, inevitably, could have had any setting. Whether he could have been taken seriously as such, I doubt. On my own experience, pigeonholing and stereotyping play huge parts in author access both to publishing and to audience; and it’s a powerful combination. Authors who do break clear often find their work isn’t taken seriously, or they are viewed as inexpert.

    1. Matthew, I need to reread Bill, The Galactic Hero. I first read it back in the 1960s and haven’t reread it since. I didn’t see it as a reply to Starship Troopers back then. That angle sounds interesting, so I want to reread it now.

      You and Karl didn’t like me using the idea of Heinlein going bad. Maybe that’s a poor choice of words. But Heinlein did go bad in two ways. One, his later books depress me. But two, his later books are turning modern readers against him. Younger readers, especially young women, see Heinlein as a bad person in his later books and are rejecting him completely. Overall interest in Heinlein has fallen. At one time he was the top writer in science fiction. Now he’s being forgotten. I want his good books remembered, but their memory is being overshadowed by his bad books.

  6. My “This book sucks” moment for Robert Heinlein happened in 1970. I read I WILL FEAR NO EVIL and struggled to finish it. I stopped reading Heinlein novels after that so I’ve never attempted FRIDAY. The financial success of Heinlein’s later best-selling SF novels didn’t persuade me to attempt a late Heinlein novel again. Heinlein changed, but so did I.

  7. I couldn’t agree more!
    Sadly, it’s a common story. Same happened with Ursula K. LeGuin. Her early work was brilliant and transcended SF, but then she embraced feminism, and her later works are just feminism propaganda, without much value (despite the technical mastery). Harry Harrison, Roger Zelazny and Isaac Asimov succumbed in a simpler way, just signing with their name crap books written by others..
    Morale here: don’t go for “complete collections”, just read what you like 🙂

    1. Greatness comes to people when they are young. That’s sad, but we all seem to peak out early. I’ve always wanted to get a science fiction story published. Now, at age 67, I realize that goal isn’t just swimming against the current, but I’m trying to swim against a tsunami.

  8. Farnham’s Freehold (1966), which I bought as a SF Book Club hardcover, was the book that ended my appreciation of Heinlein. The dividing line between good and bad Heinlein (for me) can be stated in one word: editors. Before he became the “dean of science fiction writers” he had editors who insisted that he write, you know, actual stories. After he was famous, and off the editors’ leash, able to write whatever he wanted, he just stood up on his soap box and started lecturing us, story be damned. I tried a couple of his later novels, but quickly returned them to the library, as I found them too silly and too boring. He was a great YA author for the boy I was 55 years ago, but today he’s more than a little creepy. Ignorance, and innocence, is bliss.

  9. Like you, I started reading Heinlein as a kid. Loved Heinlein’s juvenile novels–CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY was a favorite. The 1960s was an up and down decade for my fondness of Heinlein. I liked STARSHIP TROOPERS, but GLORY ROAD…not so much. I was lukewarm on STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, but I liked THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. What tended to to annoy me was Heinlein’s habit of spewing long, tedious political/economic speeches in his ever more bloated novels. Gone was the Sense of Wonder I had when I read Heinlein’s great stories like “By His Bootstraps” and “–And He Built a Crooked House–.”

  10. ‘…The reason I loved Heinlein in adolescence is that Heinlein shared my fantasy for colonizing the solar system…’ … me too, but then I grew up, and expanded my horizons, and realized how much he excluded me (articulate, politically aware, woman, lesbian) from those adventures … so Bob and I parted ways, but I never forgot how he saved my sanity, and perhaps even my life, as a teenager.

  11. I usually found Heinlein hamfisted and juvenile, along with Vonnegut.
    Science Fiction is generally an oxymoron, since they just use technology in place of magic.
    It takes a good writer and researcher to write good sci-fi.
    The rest just read a lot of garbage, take a lot of pills, and crap out these 300-page turds.

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