Waiting for Heinlein

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, May 14, 2017

Are you disappointed your life hasn’t turned out like the stories you love? Would I feel this way now if I had loved literary fiction instead of science fiction? In the last third of my life, I’m cherishing nineteenth-century English novels and early twentieth-century American novels, realizing they would have been better preparation for my life – the life I got instead of the one I wanted. Science fiction is as wondrous as any religion but as frustrating as a Samuel Beckett play. Of course, doesn’t religion and science fiction promise futures that will never arrive?

Robert Heinlein

I’ve been waiting a long time for the future to get here – sixty years by one reckoning. And I must admit, sometimes I feel the fringes of Tomorrowland when I use my smartphone, but for the most part, I’m still waiting for Heinlein to show up. Other writers have complained about not getting their jetpack, but they had such foolish gadgets back in the sixties.

I’m waiting for interplanetary rocketships with long sleek hulls, that land on four fins with thrusters, or interstellar spaceships like the U.S.S. Enterprise. Reading about extrasolar planets is encouraging, but it ain’t what Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke promised with tales of visiting them.

I’m also waiting for robots like Asimov and Simak promised. I do talk to Alexa, but she has no soul. And I enjoy seeing the little robots DIY people make with a Raspberry Pi board, but I think we should have robots well beyond the ones we saw in Forbidden Planet and Lost in Space.

Do we screw up kids by letting them read science fiction and fantasy? Even before I discovered Robert A. Heinlein at age 12 in 1964, I had absorbed a great deal of science fiction via an old black and white television my family bought in 1955. Should we judge reality by our dreams? Would we have invented everything that makes us human by accepting reality as it is?

Maybe fantasies are fine except we should be more discerning when creating them.

I don’t know if this is too sick to admit, but as a kid, I was disappointed that WWIII didn’t happen. All those 1950s movies about mutants and last people on Earth had its allure. Living like Harry Belafonte in The World, The Flesh and the Devil seemed great, especially after Inger Stevens arrives. (Like Harry’s character, I could have done without the Mel Ferrer’s character.)

And even though the robots in Target Earth were scary, I liked them, although I didn’t love them like I loved Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It was a shame learning in the 1960s that our 1950s flying saucers dreams were flaky and fake. It was somewhat redeeming when we got to see Closer Encounters of the Third Kind in the 1970s, but it really was too late, at least for believing in Have Space Suit-Will Travel adventures.

It was crushing in 1972 when we stopped going to the Moon. From reading Heinlein I was positive humans would reach the red planet by the end of that decade and build colonies there in the 1980s. I thought before I died (which I imagined being around the mid-21st century), I’d leave life knowing that interstellar travel was in the preparation phase.

I’ve written this essay before. I’ll probably write it again many times before I die. The feelings that inspire these thoughts come out again and again. I wanted more science fictional dreams to come true in my lifetime. Of course, I also expected more of my liberal dreams to unfold before I died too, but Donald Trump has crushed them. Books, especially those we read when we’re young give us a kind of hope that never goes away. I know the hopes I got from science fiction are no more practical than the hopes the faithful get from reading The Bible. Does needing the impossible mean we’re stupid? Or do those desires shape our souls?

The thing that distinguishes science fiction from religion is the belief that humans can build rockets that will take us to the stars. The faithful believe God will take them to heaven. Maybe my frustration with the future is it takes longer than a lifetime to get where I dream of going.

I still embrace three science fictional hopes that could come true before I die. The first is SETI. I’m not sure humans will ever travel to other star systems, but we might get messages from beings living light years away. Second, even if we don’t get a message from ET, I hope astronomy will eventually detect atmospheres with spectrographic evidence of advanced life on extrasolar planets. Finally, I hope AI minds arrive. Many people fear artificial intelligence will wipe out humans, but I hope they will help us evolve. Our species is smart, but I don’t think we’re smart enough to survive self-extinction. AI minds could save us from our own stupidity.

I’ve been waiting my whole life to live my favorite stories of Robert A. Heinlein. That’s quite childish of me. On the other hand, I could have followed in my father’s footsteps. He died an alcoholic at age 49. I always assumed he drank because he couldn’t achieve his childhood aspirations. I’ve often wondered if science fiction was my alcohol. At least science fiction has kept me alive longer.

Like Vladimir and Estragon, my old friend Connell and I have been arguing about the future since 1967, waiting for Heinlein, Clarke, and Asimov to arrive.


What Are The Most Useful Concepts You’ve Learned From Science Fiction?

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 1, 2015

Science fiction has always thrilled me with far out ideas, giving me a life-long sense of wonder. Science fiction constantly reminds me that reality is immense and my everyday life is just one limited view. For the most part, science fiction has been entertainment, yet, I often find myself solving problems in everyday life by applying a concept acquired from my reading.

I’ve been reading SF for over fifty years, and it has programmed my thinking just as much as any Bible thumper has been influenced by their good book. Science fiction has tinted my view of reality, even though I know most of its ideas are far from scientific. When I was young science fiction fueled my hopes for the future, but now that I’m old, I’m curious what useful knowledge I actually acquired from this genre I love so much. For example, when I look back on high school, I see that a six-weeks typing course helped me get more jobs than anything else I studied. Now, I wonder if I found anything in science fiction that has been equally useful.

My favorite science fiction growing up was Heinlein’s twelve juvenile novels he wrote for Charles Scribner’s Sons.  Heinlein worked to teach his youthful readers to prepare for the future by studying math and science. Yet, when I look deeper, I got my best lessons about reality from two stories from Samuel R. Delany, the short novel Empire Star and the novella, “The Star Pit.”


Delany taught me three useful concepts in these two stories. I’ve expanded them with my own interpretation, as all readers do. But I credit Delany with presenting me with these three philosophical observations:

  • People think in three modes: simplex, complex and multiplex
  • No matter how original you feel you will always meet people who have already discovered everything you did
  • We all live within barriers we can’t escape, like fish in an aquarium, and we’ll always meet other people who can go beyond our barriers

In Empire Star, a boy, Comet Jo, from a backwater moon is thrust into a galaxy spanning adventure. Before he leaves home, he is warned that he has a simplex mind, and once he goes into space he will encounter complex and multiplex thinking. I was a young teen when I first read this story, so I was in a transition phase between what my parents taught me and learning to think for myself. This was the 1960s, and so it was a very complex time. We like to assume we’re all working from the same page, have equal thinking ability, and the standards by which we judge reality are the same standards by which other people see the same reality.

Simplex thinkers believe everyone should convert to their way of seeing things. Complex thinkers understand reality is very complicated, and there’s a certain amount of negotiating and compromise involved with coexisting in reality. Multiplex thinkers often let simplex and complex thinkers be themselves, and work around them. Take for instance religion. Fundamentalists are simplex, ecumenical believers are complex, and our Founding Fathers were multiplex.

Ever since reading Empire Star I always ask myself if the person I’m trying to communicate with is coming from a simplex, complex or multiplex thought process. It does no good to use complex or multiplex logic on a simplex thinker. And it’s all relative. If we ever encounter an alien civilization, no matter how much commonality we can find, our parochial humanness will make our initial approach to them simplex. We’ll have to progress through stages that involve complex and multiplex thinking.

When dealing with individuals or cultures, using this concept will help understand various social realities. People can be simplex, complex and multiplex simultaneously on different beliefs. Just watch the news. People who refuse to negotiate are coming from a simplex take on reality. Willingness to bend reflects an understanding of others. Multiplex thinkers will come up with King Solomon like solutions that can satisfy both simplex and complex thinkers.

Comet Jo begins his travels feeling everything he discovers is unique to him. He feels special. Then he meets Ni Ty Lee who has done everything Comet Jo has, and even has the ability to predict what he will experience. This shatters Comet Jo’s ego. I’ve always wondered if Delany was a child prodigy who wrote this after meeting older child prodigies.

Finally, in “The Star Pit” we meet Vyme, a man with a long tragic past who owns a starship garage out on the edge of the galaxy. In this story, humans have discovered that travel between the galaxies is impossible except for a very few people who have a special psychological makeup. They get labeled The Golden. Vyme takes in a street kid named Ratlit who hates he’s not Golden. Between the two characters we learn how each discover the limits of their aquarium, and how they learn to deal with the barriers in their life. I’ve written about his before – “The Limits of Limitations.”

The older I get, the more I realize that humanity is probably confined to living on Earth. And for the most part, we each evolve through the same stages as those who came before us, and like King Solomon observed, there’s nothing new under the sun. Finally, nearly all our conflicts are due to the failure of simplex, complex and multiplex thinkers not being able to communicate. I’ve often wondered if simplex and complex beings are two different species, and Homo Sapiens have already forked, and we’re already seeing signs of Humans 3.0.

Yet, I still have hope because of one concept I got from a science fiction movie written by Robert A. Heinlein.


When the astronauts in Destination Moon discover they don’t have enough fuel to return to Earth after making the first Moon landing, their solution is to throw out enough mass to make their rocket light enough to match their fuel. Throughout life I’ve had moments where I couldn’t take off, and I realized that I needed to jettison the extra weight. Now that I’ve gotten older, and my body isn’t as energetic as it was, I’m learning to get further in my social security years, I need to throw out the past, all that extra mass is holding me down.

If humanity is ever to take off it will have to jettison a lot of mass from its past. To reach the next stage, whether Humanity 2.0 or 3.0, we need to give up religion and most of philosophy. Their mass keeps us from launching. Even on an individual level, I realize I have my own mental baggage that weighs me down. Much of it comes from reading science fiction.

Learning that I have limited mental fuel offers all kinds of philosophical parallels to rocket travel and Newton’s famous laws. And it’s not just energy, but cognitive ability. We all love the idea we have unlimited potential, but we don’t. Science fiction taught me that too.

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

Stand on Zanzibar came out in 1968, and was about the world of 2010. I read it in 1968, and I’ve lived through 2010. We can never know the future, but some science fiction writers can make us seriously think about the possibilities. I remember being a kid reading this book and horrified at the terrorism that takes place in the story. I wasn’t savvy enough then to know that terrorism is common in all times, or that in 1970 there would be over 450 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Since 2000, there’s been less than 50 a year. What science fiction teaches us is to understand our fears, even when it’s wrong.

To value science fiction I also need to know its limitations.

Stand on Zanzibar and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! scared me into thinking the future would be an overpopulated nightmare. What’s funny, our world is suffering horribly from overpopulation, but not how science fiction imagined. Science fiction failed to see climate change and the Internet. It also failed to see we’d never leave low Earth Orbit for 43 years. Nor did it imagine The Hubble Telescope and renaissance in astronomy.

It’s strange to credit science fiction being a success for failing to predict, but that’s also a valuable lesson.

The Long Tomorrow - Leigh BrackettOn the Beach - Nevil ShuteAlas Babylong - Pat Frank

The real question we should ask: Does science fiction warn us away from following paths into bad futures? Did all those 1950s books about nuclear war keep us from blowing ourselves up? Or is it just another case of science fiction being bad at predicting the future? I’d like to think science fiction made us wiser in this case. I can’t help but believe Nineteen Eighty-Four is a great lesson in how not to govern. Yet, if you study how Republicans use rhetorical trickery to dispute science, you can’t help but wonder if Orwell’s story isn’t coming true. Dystopias are handbooks on how to avoid certain futures.

Using multiplex thinking science fiction can predict and fail to predict the future and still be a success. It’s much too simplex to assume a specific future will come to pass. It’s complex to think we should look at all the possibilities. It’s multiplex thinking to perceive how science fiction is both wrong and right at the same time.

— If you have the time, post a reply about how science fiction has been useful to you. —


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 alt.fan.heinlein 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

Is Heinlein’s Have Space Suit-Will Travel Satire?

Over at Locus Online, Gary Westfahl has proposed a new theory about Robert A. Heinlein in his essay “The Joke Is on Us:  The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein.”  Westfahl proposes:

Thus, I wish to argue instead that there were, in fact, only two periods in Heinlein’s career: from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein wrote science fiction, and from 1958 until his death in 1988, Heinlein wrote satires of science fiction. Or, if that language seems too strong, say that from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein took his science fiction very seriously, and after that, he no longer took his science fiction seriously.

Now Westfahl didn’t say Heinlien wrote satires, but satires on science fiction, and even makes a case that Heinlein is parodying his own earlier work.  Westfal starts his essay by claiming Heinlein is a golden age science fiction writer that still has impact:

Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.

I don’t agree.  Heinlein has always been my favorite SF writer, but I’ve watched his reputation’s slow decline in recent decades.  I am totally open to reevaluating Heinlein’s work like Gary Westfahl has done, but not to explain Heinlein’s continued success, but to rescue Heinlein’s work for contemporary readers.  I think we need to find and recognize Heinlein’s best work that will appeal to new readers.  In our Classics of Science Fiction Book Club we have many Heinlein fans but far from most, and his popularity is on the wane, especially with younger readers.

I don’t think repackaging Heinlein as a satirist will sell or fly.


Claiming Heinlein’s later work is satire is not new, William H. Patterson Jr. was the first one I remember proposing this idea in his book The Martian Named Smith back in 2001.  But I’m sorry, I just don’t buy the satire theory of Heinlein.  To me Heinlein was always as serious as a rattlesnake, and even when he was being light hearted, as he was in Have Space Suit-Will Travel, a book for children, he was dealing with kidnapping, murder, torture, genocide and destroying planets.  Heinlein worked awful hard to make that book realistic, even though it had a silly title.

Westfahl believes Citizen of the Galaxy, the 11th juvenile was the culmination of Heinlein’s expansion of stories moving away from Earth starting with Rocket Ship Galileo.  However,  Have Space Suit-Will Travel went further than Citizen of the Galaxy, by leaving the Milky Way.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel is the logical conclusion of the series.  Starship Troopers is the first retreat.   Starship Troopers is the first of the preachy Heinlein novels.  Starship Troopers it the first of Heinlein’s books where Heinlein is flat out on his soap box arguing his philosophy and politics to the reader.  Starship Troopers is Heinlein’s first Putnam novel.

And that preaching has always been in Heinlein’s work, but I believe editors always reined Heinlein in until he went to Putnam.  Once Heinlein moved to G. P. Putnam, we finally get to see the naked Heinlein.  I don’t think he wanted to wear court jester attire, he was a nudist.  When Heinlein’s characters propose killing people for being rude I don’t think Heinlein was trying to be funny or satirical.  I think he really meant we should shoot rude people.  And this horrifies me.

Even at the end of Have Space Suit-Will Travel, when Kip is before the galactic tribunal and Earth is being judged, Kip gets mad and tells them, “All right, take away our star–  You will if you can and I guess you can.  Go ahead!  We’ll make a star!  Then, someday, we’ll come back and hunt you down—all of you!”

That wasn’t satire.  Heinlein meant it.  Heinlein has always believed that homo sapiens are the most dangerous creature in the galaxy.

The Daily Show is satire.  Saturday Night Live is satire.  Satire is something liberals do.  I don’t think deadly serious conservatives do satire.  When Heinlein was younger he had some liberal in him, but I’m pretty sure most of it was gone by 1958.

If you read Heinlein from beginning to end, over and over again, you’ll see he had certain pet ideas that were always present in his stories.  I believe Heinlein changed his writing style to fit his publisher.  In the early days those were pulp magazine editors.  Then he started writing for the slicks after the war, and finally snagged a lucrative deal at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1947 and wrote twelve amazing juvenile novels.  Heinlein’s writing was confined by Alice Dalgliesh, his editor while at Charles Scribner’s Sons.  In the 1950s he also wrote a handful of adult books for Doubleday, and they were different from the Scribner titles.  Finally he went to Putnam, and his writing changed again.  I think Putnam let Heinlein be Heinlein.

Heinlein always claimed his number one reason for writing was money.  But after he got money, I think he wanted to express his own ideas.  As he got older, I believe Heinlein started expressing his personal fantasies.  I think all his later books are his own personal power and sex daydreams.  I don’t think Jubal Harshaw was Heinlein, but I believe Heinlein wanted to be Jubal Harshaw.

I believe Heinlein changed after Sputnik too, like Gary Westfahl suggests, but for different reasons.  Heinlein was savvy enough to realize that NASA was going to invalidate much of science fiction before the 1960s.  Heinlein knew space science was going to change science fiction and he wanted to be ahead of the curve, so he started writing social science fiction, political science fiction, sexual science fiction, fantasy science fiction, and got away from writing space travel science fiction.

Personally, I believe Heinlein’s writing got sloppy as he got old, and lost his ability to write structured novels.  He never was great at the structure of fiction, but the editors at Putnam let him run wild.  I don’t think Heinlein ever wanted to be Jonathan Swift but Patrick Henry.  Later in life Heinlein claimed his essential books were Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land and A Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  Oh, I agree some of Stranger does seem satirical, like the scenes with the angels, but I believe that was Heinlein being sentimental, more like A Wonderful Life for grownups.  Most of Heinlein’s political drama is simplistic, like out of a 1930s Frank Capra flick.

I believe all the scenes with Harshaw are Heinlein talking straight.  I believe the scenes with Mike are Heinlein’s power and sex fantasies.  The Fosterite Church scenes could be labeled satire on 1950s television preachers, but what is he satirizing?  One of Heinlein’s pet ideas was proving that the soul existed after death.  Do people attack beliefs they want to be true?  Mike, Foster and Digby become archangels in the end.  Is this satire or sentimentality?

Is Heinlein attacking “Thou art God” philosophy or proposing it?

Satirical writers have a target in mind for their writing.  They want to destroy people and ideas with humor.  Heinlein was cynical and angry, and didn’t think much of the average man, but I don’t think he was trying to kill people with humor, if Heinlein wanted to kill people he’d use a gun.  Heinlein was as funny as William F. Buckley, Jr.  Heinlein never struck me as a George Carlin, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or even a Mark Twain.

Although Heinlein is my favorite writer, I’ve always felt he went downhill after he went to Putnam.  None of the Putnam books strike me as funny or satirical.  Heinlein is attacking people, ideas, customs and society, but I don’t believe its with humor.  Humor is a funny thing in that what I might not laugh at someone else will.  Maybe I’m just missing the satire.  Heinlein always seemed to be about getting what he wanted.  He was bad about developing conflict, and generally created faceless straw men to knock over.  Satire is all about the details of the enemy, and Heinlein was always about the details of people who got ahead and took what they wanted.


Have Space Suit-Will Travel has always been my favorite book because its about the overwhelming desire to go into space.  It’s about a boy wanting to go to the Moon, and I grew up wanting to go into space myself.  I took this novel seriously, even though it had a funny title.  Have Gun-Will Travel was a favorite show as a kid, and it wasn’t funny either.  Much of Have Space Suit-Will Travel is about space suits.  I loved those details.  Have Space Suit-Will Travel was a power fantasy for me at 13.  It was a story I wanted to live.

It never occurred to me to think Have Space Suit-Will Travel is satire.  What I worry about now is modern minds looking back on those old books and thinking them silly, and concluding the author must have written them for laughs.   And I can even see why Gary Westfahl claims Have Space Suit-Will Travel is poking fun at science fiction because in modern eyes the story might seem quaint, goofy and naïve, but back in 1964 it was my Bible, my dream, my fantasy for the future.  I would have exchanged places with Kip in a heartbeat.

I don’t consider Have Space Suit-Will Travel poking fun at science fiction, I consider it the ideal expression of science fiction.

JWH – 11/30/12

How Famous is Robert A. Heinlein Outside the Science Fiction Genre?

At the peak of his career, Robert A. Heinlein was the most famous and influential science fiction writer within the genre, but how famous was he ever outside of the community of written science fiction?  There are legions of science fiction fans and writers who tell stories about how Heinlein influenced their reading and writing lives.  Yet, how influential is Robert A. Heinlein as a 20th century writer?  How famous is Robert A. Heinlein in the at large pop culture world outside of the tiny ghetto of science fiction?  As a life-long fan of Robert A. Heinlein, I’d like to know just how important my literary father figure is to everyone else.

Recently the Science Discovery channel ran a series The Prophets of Science Fiction, and episode 7 featured Robert A. Heinlein.  Before I saw this episode I thought “Wow, Heinlein is finally going to get the recognition he deserves!”  After I watched the show I felt, “WTF!”  If that’s the best that can be said about Robert A. Heinlein then the poor guy really is dead and buried, both physically and literarily.  The show was so murky in its focus that it neither described Heinlein’s life nor his work.  Sure, Heinlein is a hard guy to pin down, but he deserved better than that.

What else does the public know about Heinlein?  Last year, volume one of a serious biography came out, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century by William H. Patterson, Jr., which I reviewed here.   It got a mere 32 customer reviews at Amazon, and it’s current sales rank is #360,570.  I’d really love to know how many copies were sold in total, but I don’t know if it would be polite to ask the author that question.  However, the CATO Institute presented William H. Patterson, Jr. in a hour talk about the book that’s on YouTube.  So far it’s gotten 2,353 viewers.  There are several videos on YouTube about Heinlein, and there seems to be little interest in them.  The Patterson talk is very worthy of watching, at least to us Heinlein fans, but why is no one else interested in Heinlein?

This begs the question:  How important is written science fiction to the world?  Sure, we know movie goers love science fiction and it makes billions for Hollywood, but let’s focus on written science fiction.  As a literary form, how worthy is science fiction?  The Science Discovery show, The Prophets of Science Fiction, gives the world the absolutely wrong idea about science fiction.  Prophecy is a bogus concept, whether in religion, history, science or science fiction.  The future is unknowable, period.  Science fiction writers aren’t prophets, and to call them that is insulting.  Sometimes they can be accidently prophetic, but that’s all.

I’ve always believed that science fiction was a serious tool to speculate about the future, but it’s been corrupted and hijacked by the entertainment business for creating thrill rides.  I think Heinlein took his job speculating about the future very seriously, but I’m afraid the world at large never saw that.  David Boaz, who introduces Patterson in the above video tells us a quote from Heinlein in his introduction.  He says that Heinlein left a 3×5 card in a safety deposit box to be read after his death.  The handwritten note said if people name three of his books as their favorites, Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, then they have grokked him.  He said all three books are on one subject, freedom and responsibility.

Is that the legacy Heinlein wants?  That he had something important to say about freedom and responsibility?  And what does he say about those subjects?  I’ve read all three of those books at least four times each, and yet I could not summarize them in that way.  I’m not sure I’ve ever read an essay about Heinlein that saw those books in that way either.  And those aren’t even my favorite Heinlein books.

Starship Troopers (1959), Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and A Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1965) have become Heinlein’s most famous books.  It really helps that Starship Troopers was made into a movie because a film adaptation is one of the few validations that the world at large uses to remember a writer.  In The Greatest Science Fiction Novels of the 20th Century, my most popular blog essay (50k hits), I show how very few science fiction genre novels are remembered by the public at large, and that Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein’s most famous book with people outside of the science fiction genre.

I also wrote “What Was Heinlein’s Most Loved Story” based on stats from the Internet.  Troopers, Stranger and Mistress are the top three.  Another form of validation is how many books are on audio, and Heinlein does very well here.  I wrote “Heinlein on Audio” and have tried to maintain the list.  Heinlein is getting very close to having all his books in print as audio books.  Of course, this only proves he’s still a popular writer with his old fans.

Another clue to Heinlein’s popularity is the book, The Top Ten, edited by J. Peder Zane.  Zane asked 125 writers to list their top ten favorite books.  Heinlein gets one vote, or 4 points, for Stranger in a Strange Land by David Foster WallaceDune by Frank Herbert also got one vote, but only earned 2 points by Zane’s system.  The Top Ten shows that the literary world doesn’t think much of science fiction.

Even within my own system of ranking science fiction, “The Classics of Science Fiction,” Heinlein doesn’t score high – but I’ve always thought that was because he had too many popular books competing with each other.  My list includes the above three famous titles plus Double Star and The Past Through TomorrowThe Sci-Fi Lists Top 100 Sci-Fi Books also validates Heinlein is still popular with science fiction fans, and Troopers, Stranger and Mistress are the favorites.

But the more modern site, SFFMeta shows Heinlein falling from memory.  Their All-Time High Scores shows Heinlein is pretty much forgotten, but that’s how their system works.

A Google search on “Robert A. Heinlein” only returns 759,000 hits.  I’ve only got my memory to go on, but I think Heinlein used to get in the millions.  Here’s the Google Trends graph for Heinlein.


I think I need to accept that my literary hero is declining in popularity, that his most famous books were his favorites and the ones Heinlein wanted to be remembered for, but not the ones I wanted remembered.  Here are my favorites and the ones I actually think say way more about science fiction than Heinlein’s own favorites:

  • Have Space Suit-Will Travel
  • Tunnel in the Sky
  • Time for the Stars
  • The Rolling Stones
  • Farmer in the Sky
  • Starman Jones
  • The Star Beast
  • The Door Into Summer
  • Citizen of the Galaxy

Essentially, those are his young adult books.

Now here’s the thing.  Is Heinlein being remembered for his ideas, or his stories?  The three books Heinlein states he wants to be remembered for and why, suggests he wanted to be remembered for what he had to say.  Wrong answer Bob.  Ideas are a dime a dozen, and they do poorly with the test of time.  Novelists are remembered for their stories and characters.  Sadly, Heinlein never wrote an Anna Karenina, the most popular novel in The Top Ten list, or even something as memorable as The Sun Also Rises, nor anything like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse Five, Dune, or Earth Abides, books using science fiction techniques that the literary world does remember.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers are his best competitors and I’m not sure if they have real lasting power.

The above Heinlein novels I list as my personal favorites are books I love because I bonded with them in adolescence, but I know they can’t compete with the standard classics.

Heinlein deserves more of a literary reputation than was seen in his episode of The Prophets of Science Fiction.  I’d like to think he’ll at least attain the status of Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard or Robert Louis Stevenson have today, but in the world at large one hundred years from now.  However, he will be defined by the genre of science fiction, and I think that’s where the show The Prophets of Science Fiction failed miserable – they couldn’t define the scope, value and purpose of literary science fiction.  Science fiction has always been a vague term and its getting vaguer.

I had always hoped Heinlein would be remembered as the American Jules Verne and H. G. Wells of the 20th century.  In 100-150 years from now, Heinlein might be remembered like the book, Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention, because I’d like to think Heinlein’s juveniles helped inspire a generation that wanted to make space travel the final frontier.

I associate Heinlein with 1950s science fiction, but I think that generation is fading now.  I’m afraid the public now thinks of science fiction not in association with space travel, but movies and toys, like “Twenty Things Every Sci-Fi Nerd Should Own Physically and Emotionally,” – as  geeky fantasies of obsessed fans.

William H. Patterson claims Heinlein’s legacy will be:

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 totally disagree that science fiction influenced the development of the think tank. Historians of science fiction will give Heinlein a lot of credit for influencing 20th century science fiction, but claiming anything else science fiction maybe have inspired is very hard. Heinlein hated the counter culture and I don’t think he’d want credit for any accidental influence on hippies. I’m pretty sure inventors in the commercial space movement loved Heinlein’s books and might even say their careers were inspired by him, but I don’t know how much credit Heinlein can take for their success. Heinlein was a writer and his legacy must be literary.

If science fiction has a serious purpose other than escapist entertainment, it has yet to be acknowledged. I believe science fiction can be a cognitive tool like philosophy for examining reality that is separate from both science and literature. Science is the premier tool for exploring reality but it has limitations. Science fiction, using what-if and extrapolation can anticipate what science has yet to discover. Unfortunately, science fiction has been corrupted by the fantasy of desired miracles, just like religion. Too many people want more from reality than exists in reality.

Science fiction really needs to be carefully defined to be considered a cognitive tool or true art form.  Right now it’s just a catch all term.  How can we say someone is a great science fiction writer when we can’t define science fiction?  Heinlein said he wanted to be remembered for writing about freedom and responsibility, and that’s not even science fictional.  The makers of The Prophets of Science Fiction want people to believe science fiction is about prophecy, but that’s bullshit.  We really need to define science fiction so we can judge if writers hit the target.

The Hunger Games trilogy is immensely popular book right now and I believe it is science fiction.  Suzanne Collins is not trying to predict the future, or even warn us against a possible future.  “Suzanne Collins” returns 56,400,000 results from a Google search.  Orson Scot Card, probably the most popular writer within the genre, returns 3,800,000, and remember, Heinlein only got 759,000 hits.  I guess that makes Suzanne Collins the new Dean of Science Fiction.  What is she saying about freedom and responsibility?  What is she saying about science fiction?

When the baby boomer science fiction fans die off, I’m afraid interest in reading Robert A. Heinlein will disappear.  The only thing that could revive his literary reputation for the younger generations is if Hollywood makes several movies based on his novels.

By the way, Lady Gaga gets 602,000,000 results from Google.  In comparison “science fiction” only gets 233,000,000 hits.  If I could filter out interest in movies and television shows that number would be tiny.  Why is the literary world of science fiction so ignored?

JWH – 3/31/12

Starman Jones, Then and Now

Memory is a peculiar attribute of consciousness.  Who we are, and what we know, is based on memory, but our memories are so damn faulty.  I first read Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones back in the 8th grade, which was 1964-65, making me about twelve or thirteen.  That’s as good as my memory gets.  I wish I was one of those people like Isaac Asimov, who could say, on November 17th, 1964, a Tuesday, I was visiting my school library when I discovered a green book called Starman Jones – and it changed my life.  Well, I can’t.  I do know I discovered Red Planet first among the Heinlein juveniles, but I haven’t the slightest idea in what order I read the next eleven.  I doesn’t matter, but I wish I knew.  I think remembering all the details would have saved me from a life of absentminded existence.

I do have a few artifacts from the past that help verify my memory.  Below is a scan of a hardback copy I bought with my first paycheck of my first hourly job.  The book is signed by me 2/8/68.  I had gotten a job at the Winn-Dixie Kwik-Chek in Coconut Grove, Florida in November of 1967, when I turned 16.  I ordered all twelve Heinlein juvenile titles directly from the publishers and it took about six weeks to get them.  Next to my signature in this edition are three tick marks, meaning I had read it three times, but I stopped making those tick marks decades ago.


I am sure I discovered Heinlein in the 8th grade because my 8th grade English teacher had put Heinlein on an approved reading list we could use for extra credit.  I had discovered a few classic science fiction books by then on my own, like H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, but I had not yet discovered the genre of science fiction.  I am 59 now and it’s extremely hard to imagine my 12 year-old self.  I’d give anything to have perfect memory of being 12 and reading this book for the first time.  I do know I was seriously into Heinlein by the Gemini space mission years and dreamed of growing up and becoming an astronaut.

I bring all this up because I recently listened to an audiobook edition of Starman Jones.  This is the second time I listened to the story, and I’m quite confident I read Starman Jones at least four times between 1964 and 1992.  For me, the book holds up extremely well.  And in the Classic Science Fiction book club I’m in, we’re reading it for our December selection.  Several people are reading it for the first time, and I get the impression they like it.  [Here’s Carl’s review.]  

Maybe Starman Jones will become a science fiction classic.  It’s among my Top 10 favorite Heinlein stories, and I consider it one of the Top 25 science fiction books of all time – but that’s my prejudice nostalgia talking.

Can I make an objective case why I think Starman Jones is a great science fiction novel?  Why does a book first published in 1953 for boys deserved to still be read by people of all ages in 2010?  Does it have qualities like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens that make them readable and loved so long after they were first published?  Austen and Dickens wrote two of the greatest love stories of all time, and I’m afraid Max and Ellie are no Pip and Estella.  Max Jones is more like Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, a young man who gets to travel very far from home.

Starman Jones is for anyone who daydreams of exotic adventures.  Starman Jones is for readers who want to escape their mundane life and see the universe.  That’s the key, I didn’t say, “See the world.”   The quintessential science fiction novel is about going to the planets or the stars.  Max Jones is an Ozark farm boy in the future that has an eidetic memory and has memorized his Uncle’s astrogation manuals – the mathematics for navigating in space.  Many of the book club members got into science fiction because of seeing Star Wars when they were nine.  Luke Skywalker was also a farm boy that wanted to go into space, and he had his own special hidden talent too. 

I think those overlapping story aspects reveal qualities that go into great science fiction.

I wish I could remember what being Jimmy Harris was like in 1964 – because being Jim Harris of 2010 isn’t the same.  Back then I was naïve enough to believe I would actually go into space like Max.  Now, I can only read books and judge them for their ability to help me forget that I didn’t grow up to live the life of the romantic fiction of my youth.  Why has the Harry Potter books become so successful with young and old alike?  I think we all want to be 11 again, and live in a world where we can find Platform 9 3/4.  Kid readers don’t know that magic doesn’t exist – us old farts don’t care that it doesn’t.

Starman Jones has that quality that makes readers believe in the magic of space travel.  At 59 I know I would hate being an astronaut, so I’m not reading Starman Jones for the same reason I loved it as age 12.  But this revelation might point to why Pride and Prejudice and Great Expectations are great books in the same way.  When we’re young, reading those books make us  want to find love and romance in our real lives, but when we’re older, we read those books differently.  We know we’re too old for new love and romance, travel and adventure, except through books.  We understand why Dickens made up the story about Pip and Estella.  (Dickens wrote Great Expectations while he was an old man chasing a very young woman chaperoned by her mother.)

A great classic has to sell the future as a possibly reality to fuel our youthful dreams, but it is also has to satisfy us late in life as a substitute for waning love and adventure as a dying fantasy we embrace to fuel our wilting spirits.  I wish I could perfectly remember who I wanted to be when I was young, but then I wish my younger self could have experienced what I became – in other words, if I could have only known then what I know now.  If I did, would I have known when I first read Starman Jones what it would eventually mean to the 59 year old me?  Could a wise young me have thought, “This is the fantasy of my life.”

JWH – 12/7/10