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Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!
By Spider Robinson, ©1980
This essay has previously appeared in Destinies magazine (Jim Baen, ed., Summer, 1980), Time Travelers Strictly Cash (Spider Robinson, 1981), New Destinies, Vol. VI (Jim Baen, ed., 1988), and Requiem: Tributes to the Grand Master (Yoji Kondo, ed., 1992)
A swarm of petulant blind men are gathered around an elephant, searching him inch by inch for something at which to sneer. What they resent is not so much that he towers over them, and can see farther than they can imagine. Nor is it that he has been trying for nearly half a century to warn them of the tigers approaching through the distant grasses downwind. They do resent these things, but what they really, bitterly resent is his damnable contention that they are not blind, his insistent claim that they can open up their eyes any time they acquire the courage to do so.
How shall we repay our debt to Robert Anson Heinlein?
I am tempted to say that it can’t be done. The sheer size of the debt is staggering. He virtually invented modern science fiction, and did not attempt to patent it. He opened up a great many of SF’s frontiers, produced the first reliable maps of most of its principal territories, and did not complain when each of those frontiers filled up with hordes of johnny-come-latelies, who the moment they got off the boat began to complain about the climate, the scenery and the employment opportunities. I don’t believe there can be more than a handful of science fiction stories published in the last forty years that do not show his influence one way or another. He has written the definitive time-travel stories (“All You Zombies—” and “By His Bootstraps”), the definitive longevity books (Methuselah’s Children and Time Enough For Love), the definitive theocracy novel (Revolt in 2100), heroic fantasy/SF novel (Glory Road), revolution novel (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), transplant novel (I Will Fear No Evil), alien invasion novel (The Puppet Masters), technocracy story (“The Roads Must Roll”), arms race story (“Solution Unsatisfactory”), technodisaster story (“Blowups Happen”), and about a dozen of the finest science fiction juveniles ever published. These last alone have done more for the field than any other dozen books. And perhaps as important, he broke SF out of the pulps, opened up “respectable” and lucrative markets, broached the wall of the ghetto. He continued to work for the good of the entire genre: his most recent book sale was a precedent-setting event, representing the first-ever SFWA Model Contract signing. (The Science Fiction Writers of America has drawn up a hypothetical ideal contract, from the SF writer’s point of view—but until Expanded Universe— no such contract had ever been signed.) Note that Heinlein did not do this for his own benefit: the moment the contract was signed it was renegotiated upward.
You can’t copyright ideas; you can only copyright specific arrangements of words. If you could copyright ideas, every living SF writer would be paying a substantial royalty to Robert Heinlein.
So would a lot of other people. In his spare time Heinlein invented the waldo and the waterbed (and God knows what else), and he didn’t patent them either. (The first waldos were built by Nathan Woodruff at Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1945, three years after Heinlein described them for a few cents a word. As to the waterbed, see Expanded Universe.) In addition he helped design the spacesuit as we now know it.
Above all Heinlein is better educated, more widely read and traveled than anyone I have ever heard of, and has consistently shared the Good Parts with us. He has learned prodigiously, and passed on the most interesting things he’s learned to us, and in the process passed on some of his love of learning to us. Surely that is a mighty gift. When I was five years old he began to teach me to love learning, and to be skeptical about what I was taught, and he did the same for a great many of us, directly or indirectly.
How then shall we repay him?
Certainly not with dollars. Signet claims 11.5 million Heinlein books in print. Berkley claims 12 million. Del Rey figures are not available, but they have at least a dozen titles. His latest novel fetched a record price. Extend those figures worldwide, and it starts to look as though Heinlein is very well repaid with dollars. But consider at today’s prices you could own all forty-two of his books for about a hundred dollars plus sales tax. Robert Heinlein has given me more than a Cnote’s worth of entertainment, knowledge and challenging skullsweat, more by several orders of magnitude. His books do not cost five times the price of Philip Roth’s latest drool; hence they are drastically underpriced.
We can’t repay him with awards, nor with honors, nor with prestige. He has a shelf-full of Hugos (voted by his readers), the first-ever Grand Master Nebula for Lifetime Contribution to Science Fiction (voted by his fellow writers), he is an Encyclopaedia Britannica authority, he is the only man ever to be a World Science Fiction Convention Guest of Honor three times—it’s not as though he needs any more flattery.
We can’t even thank him by writing to say thanks—we’d only make more work for his remarkable wife Virginia, who handles his correspondence these days. There are, as noted, millions of us (possibly hundreds of millions)—a quick thank-you apiece would cause the U.S. Snail to finally and forever collapse—and if they were actually delivered they would make it difficult for Heinlein to get any work done.
I can think of only two things we could do to thank Robert Heinlein.
First, give blood, now and as often as you can spare a half hour and a half pint. It pleases him; blood donors have saved his life on several occasions. (Do you know the I Will Fear No Evil story? The plot of that book hinged on a character having a rare blood type; routine [for him] research led Heinlein to discover the National Rare Blood Club; he went out of his way to put a commercial for them in the forematter of the novel. After it was published he suffered a medical emergency, requiring transfusion. Surprise: Heinlein has a rare blood type. His life was saved by Rare Blood Club members. There is a persistent rumor, which I am unable to either verify or disprove, that at least one of those donors had joined because they read the blurb in I Will Fear No Evil.)
The second suggestion also has to do with helping to ensure Heinlein’s personal survival—surely the sincerest form of flattery. Simply put, we can all do the best we personally can to assure that the country Robert Heinlein lives in is not ruined. I think he would take it kindly if we were all to refrain from abandoning civilization as a failed experiment that requires too much hard work. (I think he’ll make out okay even if we don’t—but he’d be a lot less comfortable.) I think he would be pleased if we abandoned the silly delusion that there are any passengers on Starship Earth, and took up our responsibilities as crewmen—as he has.
Which occasionally involves giving the Admiral your respectful attention. Even when the old fart’s informed opinions conflict with your own ignorant prejudices.
The very size of the debt we all owe Heinlein has a lot to do with the savagery of the recent critical assaults on him. As Jubal Harshaw once noted, gratitude often translates as resentment. SF critics, parasitic on a field which would not exist in anything like its present form or size without Heinlein, feel compelled to bite the hand that feeds them. Constitutionally unable to respect anything insofar as it resembles themselves, some critics are compelled to publicly display disrespect for a talent of which not one of them can claim the tenth part.
And some of us pay them money to do this.
Look, Robert Heinlein is not a god, not even an angel. He is “merely” a good and great man, and a good and great writer, no small achievements. But there seems to be a dark human compulsion to take the best man around, declare him a god, and then scrutinize him like a hawk for the sign of human weakness that will allow us to slay him. Something in us likes to watch the mighty topple, and most especially the good mighty. If someone wrote a book alleging that Mother Teresa once committed a venial sin, it would sell a million copies.
And some of the cracks made about Robert Heinlein have been pretty personal. Though the critics swear that their concern is with criticizing literature, few of them can resist the urge to criticize Heinlein the man.
Alexei Panshin, for instance, in Heinlein in Dimension, asserts as a biographical fact, without disclaimer of hearsay, that Heinlein “cannot stand to be disagreed with, even to the point of discarding friendships.” I have heard this allegation quoted several times in the twelve years since Panshin committed it to print. Last week I received a review copy of Philip K. Dick’s new short story collection, The Golden Man (Berkley); I quote from its introduction:
I consider Heinlein to be my spiritual father, even though our political ideologies are totally at variance. Several years ago, when I was ill, Heinlein offered his help, anything he could do, and we had never met; he would phone me to cheer me up and see how I was doing. He wanted to buy me an electric typewriter, God bless him—one of the few true gentlemen in this world. I don’t agree with any ideas he puts forth in his writing, but that is neither here nor there. One time when I owed the IRS a lot of money and couldn’t raise it, Heinlein loaned the money to me.
. . . he knows I’m a flipped-out freak and still he helped me and my wife when we were in trouble. That is the best in humanity, there; that is who and what I love.
Full disclosure here: Robert Heinlein has given me, personally, an autograph, a few gracious words, and a couple of hours of conversation. Directly. But when I was five he taught me, with the first and weakest of his juveniles, three essential things: to make up my own mind, always; to think it through before doing so; to get the facts before thinking. Perhaps someone else would have taught me those things sooner or later; that’s irrelevant: it was Heinlein who did it. That is who and what I love.
Free speech gives people the right to knock who and what I love; it also gives me the right to rebut.
Not to “defend.” As to the work, there it stands, invulnerable to noise made about it. As to the man, he once said that “It is impossible to insult a man who is not unsure of himself.” Fleas can’t bite him. Nor is there any need to defend his literary reputation; people who read what critics tell them to deserve what they get.
No, I accepted this commission because I’m personally annoyed. I grow weary of hearing someone I love slandered; I have wasted too many hours at convention parties arguing with loud nits, seen one too many alleged “reference books” take time out to criticize Heinlein’s alleged political views and literary sins, heard one too many talentless writers make speeches that take potshots at the man who made it possible for them to avoid honest work. At the next convention party I want to be able to simply hand that loud nit a copy of Destinies and go back to having fun.
So let us consider the most common charges made against Heinlein. I arrange these in order of intelligence, with the most brainless first.
I. Personal Lapses
(Note: all these are most-brainless, as not one of the critics is in any position to know anything about Heinlein the man. The man they attack is the one they infer from his fiction: a mug’s game.)
(1) “Heinlein is a fascist.” This is the most popular Heinlein shibboleth in fandom, particularly among the young and, of course, exclusively among the ignorant. I seldom bother to reply, but in this instance I am being paid. Dear sir or madam: kindly go to the library, look up the dictionary definition of fascism. For good measure, read the history of fascism, asking the librarian to help you with any big words. Then read the works of Robert Heinlein, as you have plainly not done yet. If out of forty-two books you can produce one shred of evidence that Heinlein—or any of his protagonists—is a fascist, I’ll eat my copy of Heinlein in Dimension.
(2) “Heinlein is a male chauvinist.” This is the second most common charge these days. That’s right, Heinlein populates his books with dumb, weak, incompetent women. Like Sister Maggie in “If This Goes On—”; Dr. Mary Lou Martin in “Let There Be Light”; Mary Sperling in Methuselah’s Children; Grace Cormet in “—We Also Walk Dogs”; Longcourt Phyllis in Beyond This Horizon; Cynthia Craig in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”; Karen in “Gulf”; Gloria McNye in “Delilah and the Space-Rigger”; Allucquere in The Puppet Masters; Hazel and Edith Stone in The Rolling Stones; Betty in The Star Beast; all the women in Tunnel in the Sky; Penny in Double Star; Pee Wee and the Mother Thing in Have Space Suit—Will Travel; Jill Boardman, Becky Vesant, Patty Paiwonski, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas in Stranger in a Strange Land; Star, the Empress of Twenty Universes, in Glory Road; Wyoh, Mimi, Sidris and Gospazha Michelle Holmes in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Eunice and Joan Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil; Ishtar, Tamara, Minerva, Hamadryad, Dora, Helen Mayberry, Llita, Laz, Lor and Maureen Smith in Time Enough For Love; and Dejah Thoris, Hilda Corners, Gay Deceiver and Elizabeth Long in “The Number of the Beast—. “
Brainless cupcakes all, eh? (Virtually every one of them is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field; the exceptions plainly will be as soon as they grow up. Madame Curie would have enjoyed chatting with any one of them.) Helpless housewives! (Any one of them could take Wonder Woman three falls out of three, and polish off Jirel of Joiry for dessert.)
I think one could perhaps make an excellent case for Heinlein as a female chauvinist. He has repeatedly insisted that women average smarter, more practical and more courageous than men. He consistently underscores their biological and emotional superiority. He married a woman he proudly described to me as “smarter, better educated and more sensible than I am.” In his latest book, Expanded Universe—the immediate occasion for this article—he suggests without the slightest visible trace of irony that the franchise be taken away from men and given exclusively to women. He consistently created strong, intelligent, capable, independent, sexually aggressive women characters for a quarter of a century before it was made a requirement, right down to his supporting casts.
Clearly we are still in the area of delusions which can be cured simply by reading Heinlein while awake.
(3) “Heinlein is a closet fag.” Now, this one I have only run into twice, but I include it here because of its truly awesome silliness, and because one of its proponents is Thomas Disch, himself an excellent writer. In a speech aptly titled, “The Embarrassments of Science Fiction,” reprinted in Peter Nicholls’ Explorations of the Marvelous, Disch asserts, with the most specious arguments imaginable, that there is an unconscious homosexual theme in Starship Troopers. He apparently feels (a) that everyone in the book is an obvious fag (because they all act so macho, and we all know that all macho men are really fags, right? Besides, some of them wear jewelry, as real men have never done in all history.); (b) that Heinlein is clearly unaware of this (because he never overtly raises the issue of the sex habits of infantry in a book intended for children and published in 1962), and (c) that (a) and (b), stipulated and taken together, would constitute some kind of successful slap at Heinlein or his book or soldiers … or something. Disch’s sneers at “swaggering leather boys” (I can find no instance in the book of anyone wearing leather) simply mystify me.
The second proponent of this theory was a young woman at an SF convention party, ill-smelling and as ugly as she could make herself, who insisted that Time Enough For Love proved that Heinlein wanted to fuck himself. I urged her to give it a try, and went to another party.
(4) “Heinlein is right wing.” This is not always a semantic confusion similar to the “fascist” babble cited above; occasionally the loud nit in question actually has some idea of what “right wing” means, and is able to stretch the definition to fit a man who bitterly opposes military conscription, supports consensual sexual freedom and women’s ownership of their bellies, delights in unconventional marriage customs, champions massive expenditures for scientific research, suggests radical experiments in government; and; has written with apparent approval of anarchists, communists, socialists, technocrats, limited-franchise-republicans, emperors and empresses, capitalists, dictators, thieves, whores, charlatans and even career civil servants (Mr. Kiku in The Star Beast). If this indeed be conservatism, then Teddy Kennedy is a liberal, and I am Marie of Romania.
And if there were anything to the allegation, when exactly was it that the conservative viewpoint was proven unfit for literary consumption? I missed it.
(5) “Heinlein is an authoritarian.” To be sure, respect for law and order is one of Lazarus Long’s most noticeable characteristics. Likewise Jubal Harshaw, Deety Burroughs, Fader McGee, Noisy Rhysling, John Lyle, Jim Marlowe, Wyoming Knott, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis, Prof de la Paz and Dak Broadbent. In his latest novel, “The Number of the Beast—, “ Heinlein seems to reveal himself authoritarian to the extent that he suggests a lifeboat can have only one captain at a time. He also suggests that the captain be elected, by unanimous vote.
(6) “Heinlein is a libertarian.” Horrors, no! How dreadful. Myself, I’m a serf.
(7) “Heinlein is an elitist.” Well, now. If by that you mean that he believes some people are of more value to their species than others, I’m inclined to agree—with you and with him. If you mean he believes a learned man’s opinion is likely to be worth more than that of an ignoramus, again I’ll go along. If by “elitist” you mean that Heinlein believes the strong should rule the weak, I strongly disagree. (Remember frail old Professor de la Paz, and Waldo, and recall that Heinlein himself was declared “permanently and totally disabled” in 1934.) If you mean he believes the wealthy should exploit the poor, I refer you to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and I Will Fear No Evil. If you mean he believes the wise should rule the foolish and the competent rule the incompetent, again I plead guilty to the same offense. Somebody’s got to drive—should it not be the best driver?
How do you pick the best driver? Well, Heinlein has given us a multiplicity of interesting and mutually exclusive suggestions; why not examine them?
(8) “Heinlein is a militarist.” Bearing in mind that he abhors the draft, this is indeed one of his proudest boasts. Can there really be people so naive as to think that their way of life would survive the magic disappearance of their armed forces by as much as a month? Evidently; I meet ’em all over.
(9) “Heinlein is a patriot.” (Actually, they always say “superpatriot.” To them there is no other kind of patriot.) Anyone who sneers at patriotism—and continues to live in the society whose supporters he scorns—is a parasite, a fraud, or a fool. Often all three.
Patriotism does not mean that you think your country is perfect, or blameless, or even particularly likeable on balance; nor does it mean that you serve it blindly, go where it tells you to go and kill whom it tells you to kill. It means that you are committed to keeping it alive and making it better, that you will do whatever seems necessary (up to and including dying) to protect it whenever you, personally, perceive a mortal threat to it, military or otherwise. This is something to be ashamed of? I think Heinlein has made it abundantly clear that in any hypothetical showdown between species patriotism and national patriotism the former, for him, would win hands down.
(10) “Heinlein is an atheist,” or “agnostic,” or “solipsist,” or “closet fundamentalist,” or “hedonistic Calvinist,” or . . . Robert Heinlein has consistently refused to discuss his personal religious beliefs; in one of his stories a character convincingly argues that it is impossible to do so meaningfully. Yet everyone is sure they know where he stands. I sure don’t. The one thing I’ve never heard him called (yet) is a closet Catholic (nor am I suggesting it for a moment), but in my new anthology, The Best of All Possible Worlds (Ace Books), you will find a story Heinlein selected as one of his personal all-time favorites, a deeply religious tale by Anatole France (himself generally labeled an agnostic) called “Our Lady’s Juggler,” which I first heard in Our Lady of Refuge grammar school in the Bronx, so long ago that I’d forgotten it until Heinlein jogged my memory.
In any event his theology is none of anybody’s damned business. God knows it’s not a valid reason to criticize his fiction.
(11) “Heinlein is opinionated.” Of course, I can’t speak for him, but I suspect he would be willing to accept this compliment. The people who offer it as an insult are always, of course, as free of opinions themselves as a newborn chicken.
Enough of personal lapses. What are the indictments that have been handed down against Heinlein’s work, his failures as a science fiction writer? Again, we shall consider the most boneheaded charges first.
II. Literary Lapses
(1) “Heinlein uses slang.” Sorry. Flat wrong. It is very seldom that one of his characters uses slang or argot; he in authorial voice never does. What he uses that is miscalled “slang” are idiom and colloquialism. I won’t argue the (to me self-evident) point that a writer is supposed to preserve them—not at this time, anyway. I’ll simply note that you can’t very well criticize a man’s use of a language whose terminology you don’t know yourself.
(2) “Heinlein can’t create believable women characters.” There’s an easy way to support this claim: simply disbelieve in all Heinlein’s female characters, and maintain that all those who believe them are gullible. You’ll have a problem, though: several of Heinlein’s women bear a striking resemblance to his wife Virginia, you’ll have to disbelieve in her, too—which could get you killed if your paths cross. Also, there’s a lady I once lived with for a long time, who used to haunt the magazine stores when I Will Fear No Evil was being serialized in Galaxy, because she could not wait to read the further adventures of the “unbelievable” character with whom she identified so strongly—you’ll have to disbelieve in her, too.
Oddly, this complaint comes most often from radical feminists. Examination shows that Heinlein’s female characters are almost invariably highly intelligent, educated, competent, practical, resourceful, courageous, independent, sexually aggressive and sufficiently personally secure to be able to stroke their men’s egos as often as their own get stroked. I will—reluctantly—concede that this does not sound like the average woman as I have known her, but I am bemused to find myself in the position of trying to convince feminists that such women can in fact exist.
I think I know what enrages the radicals: two universal characteristics of Heinlein heroines that I left out of the above list. They are always beautiful and proud of it (regardless of whether they happen to be pretty), and they are often strongly interested in having babies. None of them bitterly regrets and resents having been born female—which of course makes them not only traitors to their exploited sex, but unbelievable.
(3) “Heinlein’s male characters are all him.” I understand this notion was first put forward by James Blish in an essay titled, “Heinlein, Son of Heinlein,” which I have not seen. But the notion was developed in detail by Panshin. As he sees it, there are three basic male personae Heinlein uses over and over again, the so-called Three-Stage Heinlein Individual. The first and youngest stage is the bright but naive youth; the second is the middle-aged man who knows how the world works; the third is the old man who knows how it works and why it works, knows how it got that way. All three, Panshin asserts, are really Heinlein in the thinnest of disguises. (Sounds like the average intelligent man to me.)
No one ever does explain what, if anything, is wrong with this, but the implication seems to be that Heinlein is unable to get into the head of anyone who does not think like him. An interesting theory—if you overlook Dr. Ftaeml, Dr. Mahmoud, Memtok, David McKinnon, Andy Libby, all the characters in “Magic, Inc.” and “And He Built a Crooked House,” Noisy Rhysling, the couple in “It’s Great To Be Back,” Lorenzo Smythe, The Man Who Traveled in Elephants, Bill Lermer, Hugh Farnham, Jake Salomon, all the extremely aged characters in Time Enough For Love, all the extremely young characters in Tunnel in the Sky except Rod Walker, and all four protagonists of “The Number of the Beast—” (among many others). Major characters all, and none of them fits on the three-stage age/wisdom chart. (Neither, by the way, does Heinlein—who was displaying third-stage wisdom and insight in his early thirties.)
If all the male Heinlein characters that can be forced into those three pigeonholes are Heinlein in thin disguise, why is it that I have no slightest difficulty in distinguishing (say) Juan Rico from Thorby, or Rufo from Dak Broadbent, or Waldo from Andy Libby, or Jubal Harshaw from Johann Smith? If Heinlein writes in characterizational monotone, why don’t I confuse Colonel Dubois, Colonel Baslim and Colonel Manning? Which of the four protagonists of “The Number of the Beast—” is the real Heinlein, and how do you know?
To be sure, some generalizations can be made of the majority of Heinlein’s heroes—he seems fascinated by competence, for example, whereas writers like Pohl and Sheckley seem fascinated by incompetence. Is this a flaw in any of these three writers? If habitual use of a certain type of character is a literary sin, should we not apply the same standard to Alfred Bester, Kurt Vonnegut, Phil Dick, Larry Niven, Philip Roth, Raymond Chandler, P.G. Wodehouse, J.P. Donleavy and a thousand others?
(4) “Heinlein doesn’t describe his protagonists physically.” After I have rattled off from memory extensive physical descriptions of Lazarus and Dora and Minerva Long, Scar Gordon, Jubal Harshaw and Eunice Branca, complainers of this type usually add, “unless the mechanics of the story require it.” Thus amended, I’ll chop it—as evidence of the subtlety of Heinlein’s genius. A maximum number of his readers can identify with his characters.
What these types are usually complaining about is the absence of any poetry about physical appearance, stuff like, “Questing eyes like dwarf hazelnuts brooded above a strong yet amiable nose, from which depended twin parentheses framing a mouth like a pink Eskimo Pie. Magenta was his weskit, and his hair was the color of mild abstraction on a winter’s morning in Antigonish.” In Heinlein’s brand of fiction, a picture is seldom worth a thousand words—least of all a portrait.
But I have to admit that Alexei Panshin put his finger on the fly in the ointment on p. 128 of Heinlein in Dimension: “. . . while the reader doesn’t notice the lack of description while he reads, afterwards individual characters aren’t likely to stand out in the mind.” In other words, if you leave anything to the reader’s imagination, you’ve lost better than half the critics right there. Which may be the best thing to do with them.
(5) “Heinlein can’t plot.” One of my favorite parts of Heinlein in Dimension is the section on plot. On p. 153 Panshin argues that Heinlein’s earliest works are flawed because “they aren’t told crisply. They begin with an end in mind and eventually get there, but the route they take is a wandering one.” On the very next page Panshin criticizes Heinlein’s later work for not wandering, for telling him only those details necessary to the story.
In “Gulf,” for instance, Heinlein spends one day in time and 36 pages in enrolling an agent. He then spends six months, skimmed over in another 30-odd pages, in training the agent. Then, just to end the story, he kills his agent off in a job that takes him one day, buzzed over in a mere 4 pages. The gradual loss of control is obvious.
Presumably the significant and interesting parts of Panshin’s life come at steady, average speed. Or else he wanted the boring and irrelevant parts of Joe’s life thrown in to balance some imaginary set of scales. (Oh, and just to get the record straight, it is clearly stated in “Gulf” that Joe’s final mission takes him many days.) All written criticism I have seen of Heinlein’s plotting comes down to this same outraged plaint: that if you sit down and make an outline of the sequence of events in a Heinlein story, it will most likely not come out symmetrical and balanced. Right you are: it won’t. It will just seem to sort of ramble along, just like life does, and at the end, when you have reached the place where the author wanted you to go, you will look back at your tracks and fail to discern in them any mathematical pattern or regular geometric shape. If you keep looking, though, you’ll notice that they got you there in the shortest possible distance, as straightforwardly as the terrain allowed. And that you hurried.
That they cannot be described by any simple equation is a sign of Heinlein’s excellence, not his weakness.
(6) “Heinlein can’t write sex scenes.” This one usually kicks off an entertaining hour defining a “good sex scene.” Everybody disagrees with everybody on this, but most people I talk to can live with the following four requirements: a “good” sex scene should be believable, consensual (all parties consenting), a natural development of the story rather than a pasted-on attention-getter, and, hopefully, sexually arousing.
In order: Heinlein has never described any sexual activity that would cause either Masters or Johnson even mild surprise. In forty-two books I can recall only one scene of even attempted rape (unsuccessful, fatally so) and two depictions of extremely mild spanking. I have found no instances of gratuitous sex, tacked on to make a dull story interesting, and I defy anyone to name one.
As to the last point, if you have spent any time at all in a pornshop (and if you haven’t, why not? Aren’t you at all curious about people?) you’ll have noticed that none of the clientele is aroused by more than five to ten percent of the available material. Yet it all sells or it wouldn’t be there. One man’s meat is another man’s person. Heinlein’s characters may not behave in bed the way you do—so what?
It has been argued by some that “Heinlein suddenly started writing about sex after ignoring it for years . . .” They complain that all of Heinlein’s early heroes, at least, are Boy Scouts. Please examine any reasonably complete bibliography of early Heinlein—the one in the back of Heinlein in Dimension will do fine. Now: if you exclude from consideration (a) juvenile novels, in which Heinlein could not have written a sex scene, any more than any juvenile-novelist could have in the forties and fifties; (b) stories sold to John Campbell, from which Kay Tarrant cut all sex no matter who the author; (c) stories aimed at and sold to “respectable,” slick, non-SF markets which were already breaking enough taboos by buying science fiction at all; (d) tales in which no sex subplot was appropriate to the story; and (e) stories for Boys’ Life whose protagonists were supposed to be Boy Scouts; what you are left with as of 1961 is two novels and two short stories, all rife with sex. Don’t take my word, go look it up. In 1961, with the publication of Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein became one of the first SF writers to openly discuss sex at any length, and he has continued to do so since. (Note to historians: I know Farmer’s “The Lovers” came nine years earlier—but note that the story did not appear in book form until 1961, the same year as Stranger and a year after Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X.) I know vanishingly few septuagenarians whose view of sex is half so liberal and enlightened as Heinlein’s—damn few people of any age, more’s the pity.
(7) “Heinlein is preachy.” “preachy: inclined to preach.” “preach: to expound upon in writing or speech; especially, to urge acceptance of or compliance with (specified religious or moral principles).”
Look: the classic task of fiction is to create a character or characters, give he-she-or-them a problem or problems, and then show his-her-their struggle to find a solution or solutions. If it doesn’t do that, comparatively few people will pay cash for the privilege of reading it. (Rail if you will about “archaic rules stifling creative freedom”: that’s the way readers are wired up, and we exist for their benefit.) Now: if the solution proposed does not involve a moral principle (extremely difficult to pull off), you have a cookbook, a how-to manual, Spaceship Repair for the Compleat Idiot. If no optimal solution is suggested, if the problem is left unsolved, there are three possibilities: either the writer is propounding the moral principle that some problems have no optimal solutions (e.g. “Solution Unsatisfactory” by R.A.H.), or the writer is suggesting that somebody should find a solution to this dilemma because it beats the hell out of him, or the writer has simply been telling you a series of pointless and depressing anecdotes, speaking at great length without saying anything (e.g. most of modern mainstream litracha). Perhaps this is an enviable skill, for a politician, say, but is it really a requirement of good fiction?
Exclude the above cases and what you have left is a majority of all the fiction ever written, and the overwhelming majority of the good fiction.
But one of the oddities of humans is that while we all want our fiction to propose solutions to moral dilemmas, we do not want to admit it. Our writers are supposed to answer the question, “What is moral behavior?”—but they’d better not let us catch them palming that card. (Actually, Orson and I are just good friends.) The pill must be heavily sugar-coated if we are to swallow it. (I am not putting down people. I’m a people. That bald apes can be cajoled into moral speculation by any means at all is a miracle, God’s blessing on us all. Literature is the antithesis of authoritarianism and of most organized religions—which seek to replace moral speculation with laws—and in that cause we should all be happy to plunge our arms up to the shoulders in sugar.)
And so, when I’ve finished explaining that “preachy” is a complimentary thing to call a writer, the people who made the charge usually backpedal and say that what they meant was:
(8) “Heinlein lectures at the expense of his fiction.” Here, at last, we come to something a little more than noise. This, if proved, would seem a genuine and serious literary indictment.
Robert Heinlein himself said in 1950:
A science fiction writer may have, and often does have, other motivations in addition to pursuit of profit. He may wish to create “art for art’s sake,” he may want to warn the world against a course he feels disastrous (Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World—but please note that each is intensely entertaining, and that each made stacks of money), he may wish to urge the human race toward a course which he considers desirable (Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Wells’ Men Like Gods), he may wish to instruct, to uplift, or even to dazzle. But the science fiction writer—any fiction writer—must keep entertainment consciously in mind as his prime purpose… or he may find himself back dragging that old cotton sack.
(from “Pandora’s Box,” reprinted in Expanded Universe)
The charge is that in his most recent works, Robert Heinlein has subordinated entertainment to preaching, that he has, as Theodore Sturgeon once said of H.G. Wells’ later work, “sold his birthright for a pot of message.” In evidence the prosecution adduces I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough For Love, the second and third most recent Heinlein novels, and when “The Number of the Beast—” becomes generally available, they’ll probably add that one too.
Look: nobody wants to be lectured to, right? That is, no one wants to be lectured to by some jerk who doesn’t know any more than they do. But do not good people, responsible people, enlightened citizens, want to be lectured to by someone who knows more than they do? Have we really been following Heinlein for forty years because he does great card tricks? Only?
Defense is willing to stipulate that, proportionately speaking, all three of People’s Exhibits tend to be—by comparison with early Heinlein—rather long on talk and short on action (Time Enough For Love perhaps least so of the three). Defense wishes to know, however, what if anything is wrong with that, and offers for consideration Venus Plus X, Triton, Camp Concentration and The Thurb Revolution.
I Will Fear No Evil concerns a man whose brain is transplanted into the body of a healthy and horny woman; to his shock, he learns that the body’s original personality, its soul, is still present in his new skull (or perhaps, as Heinlein is careful not to rule out, he has a sustained and complex hallucination to that effect). She teaches him about how to be female, and in the process learns something of what it’s like to be male. Is there any conceivable way to handle this theme without lots of internal dialogue, lots of sharing of opinions and experiences, and a minimum of fast-paced action? Or is the theme itself somehow illegitimate for SF?
Time Enough For Love concerns the oldest man in the Galaxy (by a wide margin), who has lived so long that he no longer longs to live. But his descendants (and by inescapable mathematical logic most of the humans living by that point are his descendants) will not let him die, and seek to restore his zest for living by three perfectly reasonable means: they encourage him to talk about the Old Days, they find him something new to do, and they smother him with love and respect. Do not all of these involve a lot of conversation? As I mentioned above, this book has action aplenty, when Lazarus gets around to reminiscing (and lying); that attempted-rape scene, for instance, is a small masterpiece, almost a textbook course in how to handle a fight scene.
But who says that ideas are not as entertaining as fast-paced action?
“The Number of the Beast—” (I know, on the cover of the book it says The Number of the Beast, without quotes or dash; that is the publishers’ title. I prefer Heinlein’s.) I hesitate to discuss this book as it is unlikely you can have read it by now and I don’t want to spoil any surprises (of which there are many). But I will note that there is more action here than in the last two books put together, and—since all four protagonists are extraordinarily educated people, who love to argue—a whole lot of lively and spirited dialogue. I also note that its basic premise is utterly, delightfully preposterous—and that I do not believe it can be disproved. (Maybe Heinlein and Phil Dick aren’t that far apart after all.) It held my attention most firmly right up to the last page, and indeed holds it yet.
Let me offer some more bits of evidence.
One: According to a press release which chanced to land on my desk last week, three of Berkley Publishing Company’s top ten all-time bestselling SF titles are Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough For Love, and I Will Fear No Evil.
Two: In the six years since it appeared in paperback, Time Enough For Love has gone through thirteen printings—a feat it took both Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress ten years apiece to achieve.
Three: Gregg Press, a highly selective publishing house which brings out quality hardcover editions of what it considers to be the finest in SF, has already printed an edition of I Will Fear No Evil, designed to survive a thousand readings. It is one of the youngest books on the Gregg List.
Four: The Notebooks Of Lazarus Long, a 62-page excerpt from Time Enough For Love comprising absolutely nothing but opinions, without a shred of action, narrative or drama, is selling quite briskly in a five-dollar paperback edition, partially hand-lettered by D.F. Vassallo. I know of no parallel to this in all SF (unless you consider Tolkien “SF”).
Five: Heinlein’s latest novel, “The Number of the Beast—,” purchased by editors who, you can assume, knew quite well the dollars-and-cents track record of Heinlein’s last few books, fetched an all-time genre-record-breaking half a million dollars.
Plainly the old man has lost his touch, eh? Mobs of customers, outraged at his failure to entertain them, are attempting to drown him in dollars.
What’s that? You there in the back row, speak up. You say you aren’t entertained, and that proves Heinlein isn’t entertaining? Say, aren’t you the same person I saw trying to convince that guy from the New York Times that SF is not juvenile brainless adventure but the literature of ideas? Social relevance and all that?
What that fellow in the back row means is not that ideas and opinions do not belong in a science fiction novel. He means he disagrees with some of Heinlein’s opinions. (Even that isn’t strictly accurate. From the noise and heat he generates in venting his disagreement, it’s obvious that he hates and bitterly resents Heinlein’s opinions.)
I know of many cases in which critics have disagreed with, or vilified, or forcefully attacked Robert Heinlein’s opinions. A few were even able to accurately identify those opinions. I know of none who has succeeded in disproving, demonstrating to be false, a single one of them. I’m sure it could happen, but I’m still waiting to see it.
Defense’s arms are weary from hauling exhibits up to the bench; perhaps this is the point at which Defense should rest.
Instead I will reverse myself, plead guilty with an explanation, and throw myself on the mercy of the court. I declare that I do think the sugar-coating on Heinlein’s last few books is (comparatively) thin, and not by accident or by failure of craft. I believe there is a good reason why the plots of the last three books allow and require their protagonists to preach at length. Moral, spiritual, political and historical lessons which he once would have spent at least a novelette developing are lately fired off at the approximate rate of a half dozen per conversation. That his books do not therefore fall apart the way Wells’ last books did is only because Heinlein is incapable of writing dull. Over four decades it has become increasingly evident that he is not the “pure entertainment” song and dance man he has always claimed to be, that he has sermons to preach—and the customers keep coming by the carload. Furthermore, with the passing of those four decades, the urgency of his message has grown.
And so now, with his very latest publication, Expanded Universe, Heinlein has finally blown his cover altogether. I think that makes Expanded Universe, despite a significant number of flaws, the single most important and valuable Heinlein book ever published.
Let me tell you a little about the book. It is built around a previously available but long out of print Heinlein collection, The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein, but it has been expanded by about 160%, with approximately 125,000 words of new material, for a total of about 202,500 words. Some of the new stuff is fiction, although little of it is science fiction (about 17,500 words). But the bulk of the new material, about 84,000 words, is nonfiction. Taken together it’s as close as Heinlein is ever going to get to writing his memoirs, and it forms his ultimate personal statement to date. In ten essays, a polemic, one and a half speeches and extensive forewords and afterwords for most of thirteen stories, Heinlein lets us further inside his head then he ever has before. And hey, you know what? He doesn’t resemble Lazarus Long much at all.
For instance, although he is plainly capable of imagining and appreciating it, Heinlein is not himself able to sustain Lazarus’ magnificent ingrained indifference to the fate of any society. Unlike Lazarus, Heinlein loves the United States of America. He’ll tell you why, quite specifically, in this book. Logical, pragmatic reasons why. He will tell you, for instance, of his travels in the Soviet Union, and what he saw and heard there. If, after you’ve heard him out, you still don’t think that for all its warts (hell, running sores), the United States is the planet’s best hope for an enlightened future, there’s no sense in us talking further; you’ll be wanting to pack. (Hey, have you heard? The current government of the People’s Republic of China [half-life unknown] has allowed as how limited freedom of thought will be permitted this year. Provisionally.)You know, the redneck clowns who chanted “America—love it or leave it!” while they stomped me back in the sixties didn’t have a bad slogan. The only problem was that they got to define “love of America,” and they limited its meaning to “blind worship of America.” In addition they limited the definition of America to “the man in the White House.”
These mistakes Heinlein certainly does not make. (Relevant quote from Expanded Universe: “Brethren and Sistren, have you ever stopped to think that there has not been one rational decision out of the Oval Office for fifty years?”—[italics his—SR]). In this book he identifies clearly, vividly and concisely the specific brands of rot that are eating out America’s heart. He outlines each of the deadly perils that face the nation, and predicts their consequences. As credentials, he offers a series of fairly specific predictions he made in 1950 for the year 2000, updated in 1965, and adds 1980 updates supporting a claim of a sixty-six percent success rate-enormously higher than that of, say, Jeane Dixon. He pronounces himself dismayed not only by political events of the last few decades, but by the terrifying decay of education and growth of irrationalism in America. (Aside: in my own opinion, one of the best exemplars of this latter trend is Stephen King’s current runaway bestseller The Stand, a brilliantly entertaining parable in praise of ignorance, superstition, reliance on dreams, and the sociological insights of feeble-minded old Ned Ludd.)
It is worth noting in this connection that while Heinlein has many scathing things to say about the U.S. in Expanded Universe, he has prohibited publication of the book in any other country. We don’t wash family linen with strangers present. I don’t know of any other case in which an SF writer deliberately (and drastically) limited his royalties out of patriotism, or for that matter any moral or ethical principle. I applaud.
Friends, one of the best educated and widely traveled men in America has looked into the future, and he is not especially optimistic.
It cannot be said that he despairs. He makes many positive, practical suggestions—for real cures rather than Band-Aids. He outlines specifically how to achieve the necessary perspective and insight to form intelligent extrapolations of world events, explains in detail how to get a decent education (by the delightful device of explaining how not to get one), badly names the three pillars of wisdom, and reminds us that “Last to come out of Pandora’s Box was a gleaming, beautiful thing—eternal Hope.”
But the last section of the book is a matched pair of mutually exclusive prophecies, together called “The Happy Days Ahead.” The first is a gloomy scenario of doom, the second an optimistic scenario. He says, “I can risk great gloom in the first because I’ll play you out with music at the end.”
But I have to admit that the happy scenario, Over the Rainbow, strikes me as preposterously unlikely.
In fact, the only thing I can imagine that would increase its probability would be the massive widespread reading of Expanded Universe.
Which brings me to what I said at the beginning of this essay: if you want to thank Robert A. Heinlein, do what you can to see to it that the country he loves, the culture he loves, the magnificent ideal he loves, is not destroyed. If you have the wit to see that this old man has a genuine handle on the way the world wags, kindly stop complaining that his literary virtues are not classical and go back to doing what you used to do when SF was a ghetto-literature scorned by all the world: force copies of Heinlein on all your friends. Unlike most teachers, Heinlein has been successfully competing with television for forty years now. Anyone that he cannot convert to rationalism is purely unreachable, and you know, there are a hell of a lot of people on the fence these days.
I do not worship Robert Heinlein. I do not agree with everything he says. There are a number of his opinions concerning which I have serious reservations, and perhaps two with which I flat-out disagree (none of which I have the slightest intention of washing with strangers present). But all of these tend to keep me awake nights, because the only arguments I can assemble to refute him are based on “my thirty years of experience,” of a very limited number of Americans and Canadians—and I’m painfully aware of just how poorly that stacks up against his seventy-three years of intensive study of the entire population and the entire history of the planet.
And I repeat: if there is anything that can divert the land of my birth from its current stampede into the Stone Age, it is the widespread dissemination of the thoughts and perceptions that Robert Heinlein has been selling as entertainment since 1939. You can thank him, not by buying his book, but by loaning out the copy you buy to as many people as will sit still for it, until it falls apart from overreading. (Be sure and loan Expanded Universe only to fellow citizens.) Time is short: it is no accident that his latest novel devotes a good deal of attention to the subject of lifeboat rules. Nor that Expanded Universe contains a quick but thorough course in how to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. (When Heinlein said in his Guest of Honor speech at MidAmeriCon that “there will be nuclear war on Earth in your lifetime,” some people booed, and some were unconvinced. But it chanced that there was a thunderstorm over the hotel next morning—and I woke up three feet in the air, covered with sweat.) Emergencies require emergency measures, so drastic that it will be hard to persuade people of their utter necessity.
If you want to thank Robert Heinlein, open your eyes and look around you—and begin loudly demanding that your neighbors do likewise.
Or—at the very least-please stop loudly insisting that the elephant is merely a kind of inferior snake, or tree, or large barrel of leather, or oversized harpoon, or flexible trombone, or…
(When I read the above as my Guest of Honor speech at the New England Science Fiction Association’s annual regional convention, Boskone, I took Heinlein’s advice about playing them out with music literally, and closed with a song. I append it here as well. It is the second filksong I’ve ever written, and it is set to the tune of Old Man River, as arranged by Marty Paich on Ray Charles’ Ingredients in a Recipe For Soul. [If you’re not familiar with that arrangement, the scansion will appear to limp at the end.] Guitar chords are provided for would-be filksingers, but copyright is reserved for recording or publishing royalties, etc.)
Ol’ Man Heinlein
(lyrics by Spider Robinson)
D G7 D G7
Ol’ man Heinlein That ol’ man Heinlein
D A7 Bm E7
He must know somethin’ His heart keeps pumpin’
A Asus A A+ D
He just keep writin’ And lately writin’ ’em long
D G7 D G7
He don’t write for critics Cause that stuff’s rotten
D A7 Bm E7
And them that writes it Is soon forgotten
A Asus A A+ D
But ol’ man Heinlein keeps speculatin’ along
F#m C#7 F#m C#7 F#m C#7 F#m C#7
You and me Sit and think Heads all empty except for drink
F#m C#7 F#m C#7 F#m C#7 Em A7
Tote that pen Jog that brain Get a little check in the mail from Baen
D G7 D G7
I get bleary And feel like shirkin’
D A7 Bm E7
I’m tired of writin’ But scared of workin’
A Asus A A+ D
But ol’ man Heinlein He keeps on rollin’ along
Abm Eb7 Abm Eb7 Abm Eb7 Abm Eb7
You and me Read his stuff Never can seem to get enough
Abm Eb7 Abm Eb7 Abm Eb7 Abm F#m B7
Turn that page Dig them chops Hope the old gentleman never stops
E A7 E A7
So raise your glasses It’s only fittin’
E B C#m F#7
The best SF that was ever written
E E+ E6 Am E C#m F#7 B7 E
Is Old Man Heinlein May he live as long as Lazarus Long!
 An incomplete list, off the top of my head.
 I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve heard “libertarian” used as a pejorative a few times lately.
 As distinct from the opinions of his protagonists.
 At press time, they have given every sign of having changed their minds.
 At presstime I learn that the book can be obtained in Canada. I follow the logic; the two countries are Siamese Twins.
 A filksong is not a typo, but a generic term for any song or song-parody sung by or for SF fans.