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What the Hell is he Talking About? 
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post What the Hell is he Talking About?
I was reading the Alfred Bester collection Redemolished and came across his book review column for March 1961 (F&SF). I'll quote the relevant parts below. It's one of those critical remarks that, while perceptive to some degree, also makes me wonder whether he had actually read Heinlein. I suspect there is a certain amount of simply not catching what's going on and therefore reaching wrong conclusions, but I'd appreciate input on what you think he means by particular statements:

 Mar 61 "The Perfect Composite Science Fiction Author" by Alfred Bester in Fantasy & Science Fiction (reprinted in Redemolished, 2000, at 405, from which this extract is taken)
Last month we complained rather bitterly about the poor quality of contemporary science fiction and its authors. Although we were careful to point out that there were exceptions to our attack, we fear that angry fans may have overlooked this. So we would like to take advantage of this month's All Star Issue by putting together a composite All Star Author out of the colleagues we admire most. Unfortunately, space limits us to a selection of seven, but we beg you (and the authors who must be omitted) to remember that our admiration includes far more than that number.
Big Daddy of them all is the Old Pro, Robert A. Heinlein. Mr. Heinlein brings to his stories an attack and a pace that have the onslaught of an avalanche. His characters do not vary much . . . he seems to draw on a limited cast . . . but they are delineated with vigor. His blacks are ebony, his whites are pristine, he doesn't waste time on delicate shadings. His themes are similarly forthright, and often give the impression that his stories are being told by extrapolated bankers and engineers; that is to say, by men who are both pragmatic and parochial.
We have always thought of Mr. Heinlein as the Kipling of science fiction. This is high praise, for Kipling was the finest prose craftsman of the XIXth and early XXth centuries. Unfortunately, Mr. Heinlein also shares Kipling's annoying faults. [406]Kipling's appraisal of life was often oversimplified to the point of childishness. He suffered from acute Xenophobia, and his excessive virility colored most of his work with a cocksure, know-it-all attitude.
Despite these flaws, Mr. Heinlein remains the most powerful and original force in science fiction today; an author always to be reckoned with, never ignored. In fact, the latter would be quite impossible. Mr. Heinlein reaches out, takes the reader by the scruff of the neck, and doesn't let go until he's shaken the wits out of him. Some day we hope Mr. Heinlein will use his talent to shake a little wit into the reader . . . .
. . . . If Mr. Heinlein's work can be described as massive black and white lithography, then Mr. Sturgeon's is the exquisite Japanese print . . . .
We spoke before of Robert Heinlein's virility. In the light of Mr. [Philip José] Farmer's courage, Mr. Heinlein's aggressiveness becomes mere belligerence. Mr. Heinlein often dares to advocate a reactionary point of view in the face of a progressive milieu, and this is often taken as a sign of courage. We argue that it is merely hopping on an unpopular bandwagon. Mr. Farmer's is the true courage, for he has the strength to project into the dark where no pre-formed attitudes wait to support him. In other words, Mr. Heinlein deliberately shocks for the sake of dramatic values; Mr. Farmer often
shocks because he has had the courage to extrapolate a harmless idea to its terrible conclusion . . . .
Our All Star Author, then, would be made up of the dramatic virility of Robert Heinlein, the humanity of Theodore Sturgeon, the gloss of Robert Sheckley, the dispassion of James Blish, the encyclopaedic enthusiasm of Isaac Asimov, the courage of Philip Farmer, and the high style of Ray Bradbury. He would be edited with the technical acumen of John W. Campbell, Jr., the psychoanalytic perception of Horace Gold, and the sparkling sophistication of the Boucher-McComas team. And publishers would beat a pathway to his door.

Ok -- I'll leave it to subsequent discussion to look at most of the specific statements. But I'll say at the outset I think Bester did not "mean" the critique implied in his smart and literary paragraph conclusion that Heinlein shakes the wits out of a reader and hopes that he will shake some into a reader; I think that was simply a clever hook. Noting that this article was published six months before the release of Stranger in a Strange Land, and 17 months after Starship Troopers, I think this complaint has to be regarded as ritual rather than actual. And as to the contents of the remark -- if Bester truly thought Heinlein was not shaking wit into readers in Citizen of the Galaxy and Have Space Suit, the most obviously provocative of his juveniles, then how much real attention could he have been giving the reading?


Sat Dec 06, 2008 10:39 am
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
I think the first place I would want to start would be to ask whether "Xenophobia" can be attributed to either Kipling or Heinlein. I think Kipling certainly was caught up in the mystique of empire, and it might not be completely amiss to charge him with indiscreet "jingoism," but things like "Recessional" and "Gunga Din" make me think he wasn't knee-jerk about it, and Xenophobia is the wrong term. I can't make head or tail of this attribution as it applies to Heinlein.


Sat Dec 06, 2008 10:58 am
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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
"He suffered from acute Xenophobia, . . " Wrong, as applied to RAH


"colored most of his work with a cocksure, know-it-all attitude." Well, it's a little more difficult to argue that point.


Sat Dec 06, 2008 1:47 pm
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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
All right, I'll bite. Xenophobia first.

My mother read "The Ballad of East and West" to me before I could read myself. The first Heinlein I read, not many years later, was Citizen of the Galaxy.

I didn't grow up with Kipling nearly as thoroughly as I grew up with Heinlein, but I never thought either of them was xenophobic. Rather, I'd express it positively: that both had an admiration for real humanity, thinking and feeling real people in their own workaday world -- whether that workaday world is England or India or Luna or free fall. There is a tremendous amount of respect in these authors, and that is one of the reasons I respect and love them.

Jingoism, imperialism, and more latterly humanism, one after another, have been thrown under the wheels of Progress. I suspect that Kipling and Heinlein understood this trend better than most of their critics.

No one who has read the above poem and novel, or (for instance) "Gunga Din" or Red Planet could honestly say that Kipling or Heinlein saw racial matters simplistically or xenophobically.

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Sat Dec 06, 2008 2:02 pm
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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
Quote:
This is high praise, for Kipling was the finest prose craftsman of the XIXth and early XXth centuries.
I have to pick up on this particular line of Bester's: it's just one example of his eagerness to toss off a point without pausing for thought or for factual reference.

Briefly, to insert such a background statement -- that Kipling is the "finest prose craftsman" of about a 135-year period full of great writers of fiction and nonfiction (just sticking to English, even), without any support for that statement, is criticism so shallow that you couldn't wet a toenail in it.

What Bester is really saying, is that Heinlein (like Kipling) is competent at telling a story, in the sense that an engineer is competent who can nail together wooden boxes that you can haul stuff in. Solid, even "virile" boxes; but for feeling and polish and so on, we need to look elsewhere to fill and finish that framework.

I suppose Bester never smiled at a Heinlein joke, or admired Heinlein's courageous protagonists, or wept at Heinlein's portrayal of tragedy. I have; which is more than I can say for Bester's own fiction.

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Sat Dec 06, 2008 2:18 pm
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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
Bester seems obsessed with virility. Would be interesting to hear what a Freudian analyst would make of his critique.


Sat Dec 06, 2008 4:05 pm
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
Robert W Franson wrote:
Quote:
This is high praise, for Kipling was the finest prose craftsman of the XIXth and early XXth centuries.
I have to pick up on this particular line of Bester's: it's just one example of his eagerness to toss off a point without pausing for thought or for factual reference.

Briefly, to insert such a background statement -- that Kipling is the "finest prose craftsman" of about a 135-year period full of great writers of fiction and nonfiction (just sticking to English, even), without any support for that statement, is criticism so shallow that you couldn't wet a toenail in it.

Your point is cogent, but I had less problem with this than with the "xenophobic" remark: I didnt readit as best of the 135-year period, but as best for the period from, call it, 1870-1920 or so, and even so, while the position is arguable, the fact that it can be argued at all puts it in the running for some kind of credibility.

But, while I have heard much that sentiment expressed of Kipling's verse -- remarkable enough considering it covers the late-Tennyson period and all of Yeats (Eliot's real reputation starts around 1920 with publication of "The Waste Land") -- I've never heard it expressed of his prose (and particularly not of a period that overlaps Flaubert on one end and Cabell on the other).

As I start totting up the conditions the statement must fulfill to be credible, I start having more doubts -- I should have had more problems with it when I read it. So I'm back to my original reaction: What the hell is he talking about?

I started out thinking this might be a good place to attack the ongoing problem of Heinlein's faults and flaws as a writer -- but I'm beginning to think the statement is simply incoherent.


Sat Dec 06, 2008 6:03 pm
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
Bill Mullins wrote:
"He suffered from acute Xenophobia, . . " Wrong, as applied to RAH


"colored most of his work with a cocksure, know-it-all attitude." Well, it's a little more difficult to argue that point.

I'd want to look at how much that is an attribute of the person looking at it rather than the person creating it -- in Heinlein's case as well as Kipling's. This is one of the things Blish and Panshin make much of -- that Heinlein is aggressively positive in asserting his personal authority in his fiction and this constitutes a personal fault. I barely understand this position, and trying to follow the arguments surrounding it, come up with things like "Heinlein says a little radiation is good for you," when Heinlein said nothing like that at all (what he suggested in ST was that background radiation might contribute to the overall mutation rate and therefore be a factor in evolution -- a very orthodox opinion circa 1959). So exactly what is Heinlein being objectionable aggressively positive about? I have a very hard time taking the criticism seriously when it is a straw-man/caricature that is being objected to and not the text.


Sat Dec 06, 2008 6:13 pm
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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
Bill Mullins wrote:
"colored most of his work with a cocksure, know-it-all attitude." Well, it's a little more difficult to argue that point.


Taken literally, I'm sure you could argue against this statement as easily as I could argue for it. ("most"??? -- not likely). And I would interpret "know it all" as "has an opinion on anything that comes up, and is willing to let you use it because it is right".

But I'm sure you'll agree that Heinlein's work, throughout the breadth of his career, is full of characters who assertively state how the world works -- the are "cocksure" and "know it all" -- without justifying their positions (although occasionally, they will explore the logic and rationale for positions -- this is one reason I so enjoyed the History and Moral Philosophy discussions in Starship Troopers). I still haven't decided for myself if this is a feature, or a bug; and that they may happen to be correct in their assertions isn't a defense against the original statement from Bester.

Who among the following is not cocksure/know it all?

Lazarus Long
Kettle Belly Baldwin
Jubal Harshaw
Johann Sebastian Bach Smith
Zeb Jones
Fader Magee

Lawrence Smith (Double Star) is the classic "man who learned better", but he certainly starts out cocksure and know it all.

And I would note that some prominent fans attribute the same mental omnipotence to Heinlein himself:
"Even when the old fart's informed opinions conflict with your own ignorant prejudices."-- Spider Robinson (that is, RAH knows more than you do, so just deal with it.)


Fri Dec 12, 2008 11:11 am
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Heinlein Biographer

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Post Re: What the Hell is he Talking About?
I don't seem to have the "quote" option, for no particular reason I can identify.

At any rate, my problem with this "cocksure" statement is that the terms are really not defined or possibly even definable. I'd want some kind of unpacking or at least a good guesstimate of what Bester meant in the first place -- of both Kipling and of Heinlein -- and what people on this thread are agreeing with before I could understand it enough to make any kind of coherent comment on it.

My experience of trying to examine this kind of statement is that my best guess is that the speaker is talking about something going on inside his own head, rather than something that is in the text -- now, this is a perfectly normal aspect of what can loosely be called the "reading experience," but there needs to be more of a connection between the text and the reaction in those remarks than I have so far found, in order for me to understand what is being imputed to Heinlein -- a necessary preliminary to evaluating it.


Sun Dec 14, 2008 8:53 am
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