Get PJ Media on your Apple

PJM Lifestyle

20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein, Part 1: His Maculate Origin

The beginning of a 4-part series exploring the life and work of one of the grandmasters of science fiction.

by
Sarah Hoyt

Bio

February 22, 2014 - 7:00 am
Page 1 of 5  Next ->   View as Single Page

s9oLeWU

1. When Robert A. Heinlein was a child, his family was so poor that “[H]e slept on a pallet on the floor for years, in a constant state of amiable warfare with baby sister Louise, ‘A notorious pillow swiper.’”

Most of the writers who, in later years, would apostrophize Heinlein as “too optimistic” and turn their stories into “poverty porn” could probably have benefited from having some idea what true poverty was. Even those of us who were poor as children for some time were never so poor as to have rationed pillows.

Heinlein wrote rags to riches stories, of which those who believe the individual is powerless before his fate disapprove. But Heinlein’s own life is a refutation of their theories, so they can go suck an egg, as far as I’m concerned.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
Back in the 1980's I missed a chance to meet RAH. We both were members of the US Naval Institute, and if I had known he was at a meeting I was at I would have tracked him down to express my admiration.

I have spoken with Isaac Asimov. I pointed out to him that the first science fiction I ever read was his Foundation Trilogy, which hooked me on SF at the age of 10. And that eventually helped lead to my then paying sideline as a writer, noting that one of the routes to becoming a good writer is to read good writers. He seemed pleased and complimented, and asked what I wrote. At the time, I was writing for professional naval and military journals. Asimov did not value military service like Heinlein, or apparently at all. His reaction was as if I had slapped him in the face, and he ended the conversation politely but abruptly.

The wide gap between practical, and real, life experiences and modern PC education is a part of the difference between Golden Age science fiction, and the Zampolit approved version espoused by the SFWA.

Subotai Bahadur
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
But I did like what Isaac Asimov said when a cruise director instructed the passengers in the lifeboat drill. In response to 'women and children first' Asimov said 'except feminists.' Good for him.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Most of what I "know" about Heinlein comes from reading his books. I've read a few accounts of his life but haven't read a complete biography. But I have read all of his books.

The Heinlein I met and grew to know through his books is probably best viewed as a man who believed that the defining aspect of a sentient being was their exertion of will in the pursuit of a proper moral code. At the time I was reading Heinlein I also read a lot of Louis L'Amour and I found quite a bit of similarity in their stories. It is my opinion that his pursuit of social libertarian ideals increased exponentially throughout his career to the point that by the time his last books were being published he had become a sort of self-parody and his books suffered for it. Still, he ranks as one of the most compelling writers I've ever read and the joy and wonder I found in reading his books is one of the main reasons that I still want to be a writer myself.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (74)
All Comments   (74)
Sort: Newest Oldest Top Rated
Bless you, Sarah, for writing this series. I can't believe I missed it before now.

I was introduced to Heinlein when I was 10 years old. I read Starman Jones over a summer. Of course, I had to look up a lot of words, but I was completely enthralled by the world Heinlein created, as well as his characters. After that, I devoured every single book and story he ever wrote.
35 weeks ago
35 weeks ago Link To Comment
Excellent article, Sarah! (As always.)

I would like to mention one thing about RAH's parents being "not only Democrats, but Machine Democrats."

In Kansas City of that era, much as in any big city of today, there were nothing BUT corrupt politicians. The Pendergast Machine was thoroughly corrupt, and they were Democrats - but, as RAH himself once mentioned, they kept the streets paved, the trolleys running, and the riff-raff south of the tracks. Very much unlike the Democrats of today's Kansas City (or the few Republican administrations of other major cities, either - although they do a slightly better job).

Also, in the KC of that day, the Republicans were the ethical heirs of the Reconstruction era carpetbaggers that systematically looted the South; Abraham Lincoln would have disavowed them in an instant. (I should be able to say this without being called a Confederate - my family fought exclusively on the Union side, and at least one of them was one of those carpetbaggers in a way, profiting from some rather questionable lawsuits against "Southern sympathizers" in post-war Missouri).
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Was this article about RAH or Asimov? As the comments went on, I forgot.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I think I have that very copy of The Day After Tomorrow although with a much more worn cover and pretty sure I own that edition of Stranger in a Strange Land, although I might have a previous one and just remember that one being on the shelves. I had never seen those covers of the other two novels before.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I do have the unexpurgated "Stranger," as well as the original published version. To be honest, I found it somewhat disappointing. The main difference was just a little more sex, a little more social and religious commentary; those bits that he excised to tweak it by editors already worrying about the mob with torches and pitchforks.

In some ways, the version actually published is better - I don't think that RAH was constitutionally able to make changes only for the tender sensitivities of his editors; he also tightened up anything that he didn't think was perfect on rereading it months later. But maybe I think that because I have that particular character trait...
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
They also usually asked him to cut wordage in general. But I agree, his submitted drafts usually could use a little cutting.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I can't remember whether it was RAH that said you should always submit something a bit longer than the contracted word count - fussing over that kept editors out of much worse mischief...

Maybe not RAH. The tactic certainly didn't work with the juveniles. (The excisions in Red Planet definitely did weaken the tone - although the message still got through to me when I was a kid.)
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I HAVE read most of Asimov's nonfiction work, including his autobiographies, from which I was quoting and paraphrasing earlier. (If he had publicly challenged God to strike him dead, I think he would mention it there.) If you want me to take your claim seriously, you'll have to provide a citation of the source. And, as I stated before, your entire heart attack story is completely bogus; it doesn't match the facts of his life at all.

Yes, I'm well aware that Asimov was strongly opposed to creationism. More broadly, he was opposed to religious fanatics, particularly those who tried to get their religious doctrines enacted into law or taught as science in the public schools. That is NOT the same thing as being opposed to ALL religion. Such a claim is intellectual bait-and-switch and is both dishonest and deceptive.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
We read "Tunnel in the Sky" out loud to our kids. (For years our evening reading time was to read a book out loud. That way we were all reading the same book and could talk about it together). The book is still required reading for the U.S. Army Rangers, which we know because our eldest became an Army Ranger. I have always loved Heinlein but didn't know about his childhood. This is wonderful! I'm looking forward to next Saturday's posting.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem with Heinlin is not his political views, it's that his later novels became in effect a vehicle for *preaching* those views, making them as boring as "Atlas Shrugged".

That is why the author of, for instance, "By his Bootstraps" and "And he Built a Crooked House" later wrote unreadable tripe like "The Number of the Beast".

Another thing both Asimov and Heinlein were alike in is that they both could not create a realistic female character to save their lives, but Asimov *knew* this, while Heinlein didn't...
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I didn't know there was an agreed on definition of a realistic female character nor that whatever that definition was it was desirable in an SF story.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
And I loved Atlas Shrugged too.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm a female and I love his female characters, particularly Deety and Hilda from The Number of the Beast. Thinking about it, I may have found my way into my computer science degree because of Deety. I read that book to tatters. Unreadable? Boring? Not to me.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I must respectfully claim to have you beat there, ma'am.

I have managed to wear out two standard paperbacks, reglued the hardback three times at the spine before I finally gave up, and am desperately trying to preserve the trade edition for its exquisite artwork (although I wish they had not spread some of it across two pages).

Eventually, I will find out whether one can fray electrons into tatters...
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
So are you one of the ones pretending he couldn't write realistic females because he wrote females who tended to want to have babies, because they tended to to be straight, or because they weren't mathematically incompetent? Or are you claiming all three?
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
The problem with Heinlein's women aren't "strong women" in a realistic sense. They are fantasies - super competent AND super atteactive AND inevitably available AND without (due to group marriages and the like) ever wanting, or demanding, anything like deep attachment or love or commitment from their fellow men (they are too strong and independent for that, you see).

This isn't what any woman I know ever wanted to be - strong and competent yes, but a sexual favor-giver to all and sundry due to some libertarian excuse without any particular desire for the father to have anything to do with the child? No - It is a adolescent boy's fantasy of the kind of women *he* would like to see around him in space. Credit where credit is due, Heinlin indeed wanted competent women, not sexual *slaves*, but it's an adolescent libertarian fantasy nonetheless.

As Whittaker Chambers said about similar everybody-is-involved-with-everybody relationships (though on a less extreme scale then Heinlin's group marriage) in Ayn Rand's books, quoting Mark Twain, in Heinlein's books "all the knights marry the princess". Here too women are strong and competent - but about as realistic as a catoon. Of course, Rand couldn't create realistic male characters, either...
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Why would someone put fantasies in a SF novel? Doh.

You might be searching for the term "verisimilitude." Getting rid of villains, using mundane prose and not having pirates attack vacation space-cruisers off Saturn was Heinlein's game-changer. It was never his intent to strip every bit of fantasy away, just enough to make it more plausible.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
hey are fantasies - super competent AND super atteactive AND inevitably available AND without (due to group marriages and the like) ever wanting, or demanding, anything like deep attachment or love or commitment from their fellow men (they are too strong and independent for that, you see).

And you know that because, of course, deep attachment means monogamy.

It also means you haven't read ... Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Tunnel in the Sky, or a number of his other books. Of, if you did, you had glasses on.

Nor did you read Time Enough for Love, which has an extended, really, novel in a novel about Lazarus Long's Life-long marriage with Dora Long,, or any of the parts where he discusses how Lazarus will *never* abandon a child. Or the bad effects that come in Cat Who Walks Through Walls when -- by having been misled -- it turns out Lazarus *did* abondon one son.

In fact, come to think of it, have you *ever* read any Heinlein yourself? Or is this some predigested summary you heard from someone else?
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've read quite a bit of Heinlein. His early stories are great, since we are still dealing with recognizable human beings overcoming recognizable difficulties. He is already libertarian but he shows, he doesn't tell, and the heroes have realistic limits to their powers. The late Heinlein... well, an example.

The protagonist of "The man who sold the moon" has to give up on college and go into business to support his family, achieving his burning desire to go to the moon evnetually through hard work and sacrifice. It's a great story. If *he* had to choose between his children and his dream and chose his children, we would appreciate it. It would mean something.

The Lazarus Long of "the cat who walks through walls", by contrast, is *an immortal who can ignore time paradoxes*. Who cares about a character like that? He can just do anything he wants, effortlessly, anyway; for a god, it's not much effort to promise to take care of one's offspring, when one (it is gradually discovered) more or less shapes all of human history and destiny as it is.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
As I said, you haven't read much Heinlein. You may have imagined you did. But what you're asserting his very little to do with what Heinlein actually wrote.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Charlie, do you think there is an extra pass for SkepticalThinker to the Critic's Lounge at the Convention? He is obviously a stellar candidate for that kind of special treatment.

I would refer him, if I thought it would be of any use, to "To Sail Beyond the Sunset" for the early life and attitudes of Woodrow Wilson Smith. As to the "general availability" of Heinlein's heroines - well, yes they were. So long as you were freshly bathed, had good breath, were in above average physical condition, and genius level or above in intelligence, you would have a pretty darn good chance to "make time" with Hilda, Deety, Hazel, Tamara, Lapis Lazuli, Lorelei Lee, Star, or the other women. As to their other attributes (not being a person that inquires into other people's sex lives) - I have met and actually known several women that would qualify as a "Heinlein Heroine."
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've read (as far as I know) everything Heinlein ever wrote, all of it multiple times, and most of it > 5 or 6 times. Some of it > 10 times, I'm sure, though I wasn't counting. (Same for Asimov and a few others.)

I once took a Sci-Fi class in college. I figured it would be an easy grade, because I would probably have read most of what we studied. Bummer. There was one novella (something by Pournelle, I think) that I had only read twice. Everything else? I'd lost count.

Well, except for Jabberwocky. Our "teacher" thought that Jabberwocky was science fiction. /rolling eyes/

You remind me of him sometimes, Charlie. He settled every difference of opinion by asserting his Authority As Teacher. HE had the degree, therefore HE was right.

(He actually said those exact words. And he was utterly serious. Bizarre.)

Anyway, all that to say, I agree with Skeptical. Heinlein's women weren't believable at all.

Neither was Lazarus, but given the back story, I suppose that's forgivable.

38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
The difference being that I just cited extensive counter-examples. Sometimes the professor is right because the student actually is wrong.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
Casey Stengel's twin brother.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Heinlein seems to be a much misunderstood man. Mostly in this latter era it's because he doesn't fit into easy stereotypes. That doesn't stop the politically correct from declaring Heinlein a racist, sexist, and war-monger. The PC glom onto the least expression of that, even fictional, and ignore anything that might show otherwise. They simply ignore Heinlein's firm faith in and respect for his wife Virginia's literary judgment.

Heinlein was an odd combination of a pragmatic and sensible man and a wild eccentric. His fiction reflects this contrast of disciplined writing and child-like yet reserved fun.

Probably the bottom line is that:

A) Heinlein was a gamechanger 1940-2
B) He wrote the most consistently entertaining and innovative SF of his generation.

He wasn't called the Dean of SF for nothing. When you read Heinlein in the context of his era, there is no question of him not being the best. He tackled urban fantasy, hard SF, traditional fantasy, juvenile SF, aliens coming to Earth and it was always in the same unmistakable voice. That voice was artistically authoritative, confident, and always had something to say, and a terse expression of how to say it. I think it is these qualities that are most lacking in what I read today.

I catch glimpses of that authority in Peter Hamilton's Night's Dawn trilogy or Jack McDevitt's Infinity Beach, but nothing today, right now. People are coming up with wonderfully innovative plots but which always seem to be more than they can chew.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I find that section about the jobs very telling; that a great many of the feted writers of our day have only had an academic life, as opposed to a larger robust experience of the world (like Heinlein), explains the pallid, restrictive enclaves about which they write.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
1 2 Next View All