©1985, 2001, by Patrick Cox, originally published: The Wall Street Journal, December 10, 1985. Permission of the author to republish graciously granted The Heinlein Society, July 2, 2001.
“Robert A. Heinlein, one of the grandmasters of science fiction, has never had much patience with government authority. An IRS agent who once tried to enter the author’s California estate was told to come back only if he had an appointment — and a warrant. This wasn’t just a case of a wealthy man’s irritation with the tax collector. It was a real-life example of a philosophy that has pervaded Mr. Heinlein’s work since he began writing almost a half-century ago. Again and again, his virile heroes and adventurous heroines have traveled the galaxy, celebrating the glories of life, individualism and the free market. In his most recent novel, for instance, THE CAT WHO WALKS THROUGH WALLS (Putnam, 382 pages, $17.95), we find the sensuous leading lady, Gwen Novak, discussing ‘the socialist disease’ as she philosophizes on the evils of government spending. And one of Mr. Heinlein’s earlier works, THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS (1966), to which ‘THE CAT’ is more or less a sequel, chronicles a successful revolt by residents of the moon against a U.N.-like governing body. Not that the 78-year-old Mr. Heinlein is against all authority. Born in Butler, Mo., he is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and though he fervently opposes conscription, he very much favors military measures when they are necessary to defend freedom. ‘THE CAT’ is dedicated to nine of his friends, including such well-known sci-fi writers as Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle and Poul Anderson, who have been active along with Mr. Heinlein in promoting President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars.
“Mr. Heinlein served briefly in the Navy, but had to retire from it in 1934 because of tuberculosis. Five years later, at age 32, following an unsuccessful campaign in Beverly Hills for the state legislature, he was facing mortgage payments and no income. So he wrote his first story, ‘Lifeline.’ It’s the tale of a researcher who finds a way of accurately determining the date of an individual’s death. The hero then encounters resistance from members of the scientific community and the insurance industry, who push for legislation banning his activities.
“In this story are the predominant themes of the author’s subsequent work: free will; mortality; the resistance of the public to change; and the bad effect of government regulation on business. Mr. Heinlein sold ‘Lifeline’ for $70 and never looked back. No fan of government paper money, he points out that ‘$70 was two ounces of gold in 1939, with virtually the same purchasing power of two ounces of gold today.’ (More than a few of his books provide detailed discussions of money and banking theory along with interplanetary adventure.)
“To date, Mr. Heinlein has written more than 45 books and is published in 28 languages, not including Russian, for obvious reasons. He has contributed to the English language such expressions as ‘free fall,’ ‘grok,’ and ‘water bed’ — which he invented in print. Among his science-fiction classics is STARSHIP TROOPERS (1959), a tale set in a future society dominated by a benevolent military that is locked in war with aliens.GLORY ROAD (1963), which predates the current plethora of post-Vietnam novels, is the story of a Vietnam vet who is recruited for a hero’s quest by a beautiful intergalactic empress. And THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, with its many parallels between the lunar revolt and the American Revolution, is often sold at conventions of libertarians and other free-marketeers.
“The tale of lunar revolt does pose a problem for some conservatives, however, because it reflects Mr. Heinlein’s interest in non-monogamous marriages. Such challenges to convention turn up often in Mr. Heinlein’s work, of course, perhaps nowhere more markedly than in his 1961 novel, STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND.
“Despite its pro-free-market recitations, this book approached cult status in the late 1960s, probably because it appealed to adherents of the sexual revolution. The main character is the only survivor of an interplanetary research expedition. He is a human raised by an alien race before being rescued and brought back to earth. There, he ultimately challenges the roles of government, the church and the scientific establishment in modern society. “Perhaps it is the vigorous imagination behind these stories that keeps Mr. Heinlein looking younger than his 78 years, despite his many illnesses. He walks with a cane, and takes medication for severe emphysema that keeps him awake late at night, working as he listens to the radio. Several years ago a blocked artery led to oxygen starvation in part of his brain, with a resulting decline in the quality of his work. The blockage was finally repaired by a new technique in brain surgery.
“Mr. Heinlein says he realized he needed the operation when his wife and primary editor, Virginia, told him a new novel was a failure. He dotes on Virginia, whom he met while they were both in the Navy, and he credits her with his understanding of the market system. ‘She cured me. I’d gotten fed up with the New Deal by 1938, but I was still trying to save the world, suffering from that nasty itch that characterizes socialists — the sort of thing that makes them think that everything should be prevented or required.’ “The high quality of JOB: A COMEDY OF JUSTICE (1984) is evidence that the bypass was successful. And the author is undaunted by his ailments. Two years ago he went with Virginia on a Spartan cruise to the Antarctic, and last year the Heinleins went to the other end of the world, on a cruise that navigated the Northwest Passage.
“Navigating through Mr. Heinlein’s home to his study is adventure enough. Filled with bookshelves, his futuristic, circular house on the California coast is a labyrinthine library adorned with pictures of his two favorite subjects: ships and women. Pictures of editors and other associates decorate the wall near the word processor, where his next novel is in progress, even as THE CAT WHO WALKS THROUGH WALLS is reaching the stores. “This latest Heinlein story tackles the problem of finding a middle ground between the anarchy of revolution and the bureaucratization that inevitably follows. In the opening scene, Dr. Richard Ames, a retired mercenary, and his new wife, Gwen Novak, are at a restaurant in an orbiting retirement habitat, when Ames is approached by a stranger who uses a password from Ames’s military past, asking the old soldier to help in an assassination. The stranger is shot dead at the table, Ames is accused and the couple flee the habitat when its owners turn against them. “The book goes on to explore Novak’s true identity, as she tries to enlist Ames in a special mission: the resurrection of a self-aware computer that was crucial to the earlier liberation of the lunar colony from its enslavement to bureaucracy.
“While ‘THE CAT’ is great fun, it may alienate some literary people by openly flaunting Mr. Heinlein’s preoccupation with the bottom line. The book’s hero is in what Mr. Heinlein calls the ‘writing racket,’ and the character puts forth Mr. Heinlein’s philosophy precisely, explaining that the acclaim he covets most is that of the market. As Mr. Heinlein himself says, business is not just an idea he supports, it is one he practices with great success. ‘To me,’ Mr. Heinlein says, quoting his own work with a roguish smile, ‘the acme of prose style is exemplified by that simple, graceful clause: “Pay to the order of. . . .”‘” —
At the time of the original writing Mr. Cox was a banking analyst and free-lance writer based in Menlo Park, Calif. Note: Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones copyrights claimed @2000, are rendered invalid by decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, entitled New York Times Co., Inc., et al. v. Tasini, et al., No. 00-201, decided June 25, 2001. (Slip opinion: October Term 2000).
Today, Mr. Cox, who continues to write, lives quietly with his family in the panhandle of Florida.