The Fall of Robert A. Heinlein and the Fading Final Frontier

There are two concepts I want to express but I don’t know the words for them, if there are any, and I’m not creative enough to make up new words.  If these two concepts do have definitions please let me know.

The first concept deals with being so close to a belief that you can’t tell how widespread it is in the population at large.  The best I can come up with is the phrase “belief perspective.”  For example, back in the 1960s, kids who got high thought the whole world was joining their stoned revolution.

The second concept is about experiences that belong to a particular generation that are ineffable to earlier or later generations, and as people age, that particular quality of a generation fades away as their population die off.  The 1960s counter culture is a good example.  Kids growing up in the last two generations have no concept of what the sixties was like, in the same way my generation, the baby boomers, have no idea what WWII and the Great Depression was like.  I call this “fading generational identity.”

But these concepts don’t just apply to big beliefs or mass experiences.  For example, to young people of a certain age there is a huge identification with Star Wars movies that I just don’t get.  To this generation, Star Wars is huge in their belief perspective and it’s a touchstone to their language.  It’s  like Star Wars has infected their psyche.  

Kids today might love The Beatles  but they will never understand the impact of Beatles mania had on the music of 1964 and 1965, like I will never truly understand the success of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller on their generation even though I love their music.  Or look at the Beat Generation, what a tiny subculture, but their population is dying off, and the only way they will be remembered is a few books.  But no matter how many times I read On the Road I can never know how Jack Kerouac felt inside his subculture.

I grew up during the counter culture sixties but I also identified with a very small group of science fiction readers of the times.  In my belief perspective I thought Robert A. Heinlein was the Buddha, Gandhi, Einstein of a particular belief system dealing with space exploration.  Robert Heinlein defined my 1960s like Timothy Leary defined that era for acid heads.  From my perspective Heinlein was a major thinker, but my belief perspective totally distorted my worldview, because obviously he wasn’t.

Now on the Internet I’m finding other people like me, people in their fifties and sixties who have a generational identity with the same 1950s and 1960s science fiction that I have.  What we’re realizing is the beliefs we embraced weren’t widely embraced by the population at large and as new generations grow up, with their own beliefs, our ideas are fading.  The phrase “science fiction” means something totally different to the current generation than it did to mine.

It is sad, sometimes in a depressive way, and sometimes in a wistful accepting way, to see the ideas of your generational subculture belief system pass away.  You realize they really weren’t that big, or widespread, or even significant or meaningful, they were just beliefs you had, and they made life important to you in your time and place.

I grew up believing in the final frontier as proposed by 1950s and 1960s science fiction.  Like Christians or Muslims who thoroughly believe Jesus and Mohammed define their reality, not seeing that their beliefs are just ideas to believe in and not reality itself.  Colonizing the Moon and Mars was our Heaven to believe in, and Heinlein was our prophet.

I’m discovering two things now that I wish I could put into perspective.  I wish I knew how many people were like me that made Heinlein spiritually important to our final frontier beliefs.  Second I’d like to know how many people on Earth actually dream about colonizing space.  Space enthusiasts are actually separate from Heinlein, but I always tie the two together.

I have this hypothesis I’d like to test, but I don’t know how.  I think a small portion of the population believe in space as a kind of Manifest Destiny, but I don’t know how big that group is, and I’m also thinking it peaked in the 1960s because of the space race and because of 1950s science fiction.  I worry that in a hundred years that belief-perspective will be considered a minor 20th century fad.  Except for a handful of people I meet on the net I know very few people who share my religion.

We like to think the wonderful aspects of our generation are timeless, but they aren’t. They just fade when we age. Not only is my body wearing out and getting old, but so are all the ideas I loved.  That’s just another thing about getting old that we have to deal with.  And I’m not sure young people see this coming.  I certainly didn’t.

With the publication of the new authorized biography of Heinlein I’m afraid I’m discovering that his ideas and influence are already on the wane.  But I only have a few clues to go on.

Robert A. Heinlein is the Science Fiction Writers of America first Grand Master, selected for this honor in 1975.  It’s very hard to gauge the impact of Heinlein on science fiction fans of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, but if you search the web you can find hundreds of testimonials about how Heinlein imprinted on these writers.

With the publication of the biography I thought there would be an outpouring of reviews that would evaluate and elevate Heinlein’s literary status, but there have been damn few reviews, and most of them have been about Heinlein nostalgia.  Typical is the Washington Post review, which is the only national publication I found, all the rest were essentially blog reviews, like mine.

On the net I can rustle up plenty of folks to wax nostalgic about discovering Heinlein as kids, but among my normal friends, most haven’t read the man, and nearly all of them show a vacant expression when I mention his name.

To his fans from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Heinlein sold us on the future of colonizing the Moon and Mars and humanity heading out to the stars.  To the children of Heinlein, we all assumed everyone thought space was mankind’s final frontier, but in the forty years since, that hasn’t turned out to be true.  Most people never think about space exploration.

I’m reading Packing for Mars right now, by Mary Roach, and it’s about preparing astronauts for space flight.  If I had read Packing for Mars right after I first read Have Space Suit-Will Travel in 1965 I probably wouldn’t have embraced the final frontier dream.  People really aren’t designed for traveling in space, and you have to be immensely driven and a bit of a masochist to try.

I started really worrying about Heinlein’s popularity in the last few days when I did Google searches on the new biography.  I typed “robert a. heinlein in dialogue with his century” on Google and found damn few major reviews.  I noticed my blog review was second in the Google listing behind the publisher.  Now that’s a bad sign.  I mean, I like my blog, but if some tenth rate blogger gets the second slot on Google what does that say?  Furthermore, I’m averaging 2 hits a day on my review, from both the great Google placement and from the link I put on Classics of Science Fiction, which usually brings me a steady stream of 40-80 hits a day to various blog essays and reviews of science fiction topics.

This leads me to believe my childhood hero Heinlein is far less popular than I ever imagined.  For years now when I visit bookstores I’ve noticed that the number of Heinlein books in the SF section is shrinking.  And it’s extremely rare to meet a young person that reads Heinlein.

Now I can accept that Heinlein’s fan base is shrinking, but I dread the thought that the true belief in the Manifest Destiny of Space is fading.  But it might be.  It’s terrible to have to become an atheist to your own belief system.  And for me, I think 1950s science fiction was my religious substitute growing up in the 1960s.

So, what is the word for when you discover your belief system turns out to be minor and insignificant and is fading away as its older believers die off?  Whatever that condition is called, I’ve got it.  I’m not depressed.  I’m just wistfully philosophical.

I used to think I’d die knowing how the future would unfold from reading science fiction, but now I realize I won’t pass away believing in those visions.  But then I’ve known since I was a teen that the future is everything I never imagined it to be.  I wanted to believe different but the Zen of reality taught me it didn’t give a shit about what we believe.

JWH – 9/9/10