20 Things You Might Not Know About Robert A. Heinlein, Part 4: His Happy Destiny
16. A lot of people nurtured on Heinlein juveniles went on to make a difference in the fields of aeronautics and space exploration.
This effect is still going on with my sons’ generation. (Or at least Have Space Suit Will Travel was a great part of second son’s decision to study Aerospace Engineering.)
Some of the others of us just went on to dye our hair a shade of red and keep too many cats. In my defense, however, the only juvenile I read before my thirties was Have Space Suit Will Travel. I became a fan with The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, and never looked back. (Interestingly, by the way, I discovered Heinlein among a welter of seventies New Wave books. I still liked Heinlein better. Now that I’m older and know the history of print runs in my field, I know that this is true for most people. New Wave, on the other hand, is much preferred by the intelligentsia.)
17. Some of the things Heinlein is credited with “inventing” include the waterbed and the Waldo – and therefore, one assumes, by extension, the DaVinci surgery machines.
However, he completely managed to miss computers, except for his very late work when the computer revolution was already underway.
(I remember reading Friday and being deadly jealous of the ability she had of browsing facts and figures – now we have the internet and my cup runneth over.) He is not credited with being responsible for the overpopulation of cats in the science fiction community, but there it is. In the current fractious times, maybe cats will hold us together. (With hairballs.)
18. Heinlein was relatively successful from the beginning, but in today’s terms very much a mid-list writer — well known and influential in the field but not outside of it — until his “blockbuster” Stranger in a Strange Land.
A “child raised by aliens” story, it gets to the heart of what it is to be human and – sigh – what it is to be divine, too. I’m ambivalent about the book, partly because so much of it was seized upon, in a ridiculously simplified form, by the generation before mine and made… odd. However there is a charming longing for the divine at the heart of it. Unconventional, sure. The man was unconventional. But it is there nonetheless. And the end always makes me cry.
Heinlein himself might have been ambivalent about it. The other day I was listening to The Number Of The Beast, which I hadn’t read in years, and at one point (for reasons of plot importance) they have to list out their favorite Heinleins. I don’t remember what half of them listed, though it was one of my own favorites (Probably The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress) but the other half had listed Stranger, and one of the characters says, something like, obviously channeling the author, “I won’t embarrass you by asking who listed Stranger. Honestly, what some writers will do for money.” (I can’t quote exactly, my NOTB is missing, as are most Heinleins since my teen-and-twenty something sons discovered him years ago. The rules seems to be “There will be some Heinleins on the shelf, but never the one mom wants to consult.”)
19. Heinlein tried very hard – at least according to Patterson – to have minorities and women in positive roles in his books.
Often one isn’t sure what color his main character is. (There is heated debate in the fan community over whether Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil is black, for instance.) However, he tried to integrate the immigrant communities of his day, and his juveniles particularly feature what was for his time a bewildering array of Irish, Italian, Jewish, and even Hispanic names. This was very surprising for the Portuguese girl who grew up reading books in which the future always belonged to English names. (Yes, I ended up taking one. Wanna make something of it? It’s my husband’s name, and I can’t imagine why I’d want to keep my father’s instead.)
20. He’s hated by all the right people.
Despite his attempts to be inclusive and have names of what were in his day marginalized minorities, and to show women in science positive and even heroic roles, Heinlein routinely gets called “racist, sexist and homophobic.” In fact, in the Heinlein symposium when the Patterson biography came out, a know-nothing twenty something author who had never read Heinlein started an essay by claiming Heinlein was all of the above, because “Where are the queers in his work? Or the transgendered?” (Tons of places, sonny, but you’ll never know if you don’t read it.)
And a lot of crazy science fiction feminists – but I repeat myself – have gotten bent out of shape because Heinlein women like men and sex and like having children. The (literally) sterile choices they make are to be assumed to be an order of nature of women now.
Perhaps they should contemplate the fact that these fashions come and go and that some day, perhaps not distant, people will look back at them and call them androphobic and insane.
Of course, in the meantime they can stand on the shoulders of giants and piss down – which doubtless gives them a warm feeling, even if in the long run it only makes a smelly mess out of everything.
Quotes above are from Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve – William Patterson’s biography of Robert A. Heinlein. Some of these things I collected from other sources, including occasional (and too rare) conversations with Virginia Heinlein, but it’s easier and more concise to support it with quotes from the bio.