This online discussion is scheduled for the above date at 9:00 PM EST
Critics Review of "Learning Curve"
Subtitled: How Some Critics Understood/Misunderstood Patterson's Heinlein Biography
(Note: Some of the URLs are in quotes, because the Forum only allows 5 direct links. Just cut and paste without the quotes.)
Critics never cease to amaze me. The majority of reviews that I came across were for the most part complimentary and showed how their insight into Heinlein the man/writer was either totally changed, or at the least, enhanced. This discussion is intended to look at various critics writing about Bill Patterson's biography of Robert A. Heinlein. In the first section, I am going to describe a couple of favorable reviews and show how they perceive the biography and the man.
In the second section, I will describe some reviews which are sometimes favorable, but often show what I consider to be total misunderstandings of the biography and even worse, those which complain about style or format or other nit-picky things.
The misunderstandings should form the jump off to our discussion. I plan to simply state what I consider to be misunderstandings or misstatements and ask you, the reader, to try to find out where you think the critic is coming from, or in other words, where did he get that idea?
Of course, this means that you have to have a better than a cursory reading of the biography. If you haven't yet read it for the first time, I suggest that you get started and be on the lookout for answers. (Buy a copy if you don't have it yet!) It also means that you might have to read it again to look for answers. Have fun.
Section 1: Favorable Reviews (This is only a small sampling)
John Scalzi: Heinlein Strangely Human
His impression was changed from the Heinlein as Grandmaster, to that of a struggling writer with much in common with all writers. He states that it is the "jammed with detail" quality that makes Heinlein into a real person.
Michael Booker: An Amazing Accomplishment
Aside from being generally favorable, Booker makes an important point.
"For fans of Heinlein's fiction, this book (and I trust, the subsequent volume) will help to answer the tired question that ever author dreads, "Where do you get your ideas?" Heinlein's life is, naturally, the chief source for his fictional characters and plot lines. Sometimes Patterson is explicit in drawing these connections. In other places, readers versed in Heinlein's work will catch these linkages on their own."
In other words, he uses Heinlein's own technique of letting the reader "fill in the blanks".
Also, he speaks to the "Dialogue With Century" aspect of the biography.
"The book must also be praised as a fascinating lesson in American history. Heinlein came from humble Missouri roots and lived through the bulk of the 20th century. His Navy career prior to WWII is fascinating in its own right, as is his involvement in California politics during the Depression."
Jo Walton: Patterson Heinlein biography: Not to be trusted on details
The most amazing claim from Walton is that she "didn't find all that much new". After all, she had read most of the available material on the subject and seemed to assume that that material contained all of the important influences in his life. What do you think?
She complained about it being an "old-fashioned kind of biography". There will be more on this from her in the next review.
"Patterson's biography is riddled with tiny insignificant errors". Yes, there were some errors, but riddled? And why bother worrying about "tiny insignificant errors" when I assume that she has already shown above that tiny details didn't matter to her, only significant events?
However, IMO, she goes on to contradict herself by stating that "[getting the details right] helps the reader suspend their disbelief". Why in the world must a reader "suspend their disbelief" in reading a biography?
Jo Walton: "Out Far and onward yet!" Heinlein's future history stories of the thirties and fortieshttp://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/08/qout-f
"Patterson thinks this yearning [to go to the moon] came from Heinlein's desire to be a Naval pilot." Where does Patterson say this?
Walton's attitude towards the style of biography.
"It’s a terrible biography as a biography—biography is a genre, and this one is written the way mainstream writers who don’t read SF write SF. It would have been a perfectly reasonable biography a hundred years ago, as it reads as a huge pile of facts with no inferences and is very respectful to its subject. It isn’t how biography is written these days, when biographers ask the hard questions, even if they don’t have answers. Anyone who has read Julie Phillips’s biography of James Tiptree Jr. will be able to appreciate the difference. But it’s quite an interesting pile of information about that subtle and nuanced man Heinlein, and his complex and changing views."
"No inferences?" What book did she read?
To make the record complete, I bought and read the Tiptree/Sheldon biography. I failed to "appreciate the difference" Any of you know what Walton is talking about?
Okay on major events, but very little on Heinlein as a person or a writer, September 15, 2010 By Tevis Fen-Kortiayhttp://www.amazon.com/Robert-Heinlein-D
“…he personally burned most of the documents which might have helped a future biographer, so even with the direct involvement of Heinlein's widow Virginia, the author apparently had so little to go on that this reads less like a biography and more like a laundry-list of meaningless events. We gain almost zero insight into who Heinlein was as a writer and a man.”
Was the burning of these documents really significant as to the “zero insight”?
Same refrain as Walton.
“Heinlein also had some interesting quirks, like his attraction to nudity: his early novel 'The Puppet Masters' involves mind-controlling aliens that adhere to a person's back, largely a contrivance for all women in the world to traipse around naked to prove they are not alien-controlled.”
Can you say a little biased. Examine the relevant passages in “The Puppet Masters” and draw your own conclusion.
“Heinlein tended to include a transvestite fantasy in many of his stories: typically his macho alter-ego is forced to dress as a woman to sneak someplace…,”
Typically? I can only think of one instance and it doesn’t seem to match his description. What do you think?
“A pretty lady in 'The Puppet Masters' knows definitively that a seemingly-normal man must be an evil outer-space alien because why else would he show no interest in trying to have sex with her?”
Again, my recollection doesn’t seem to fit his description. What do you think?
“Presumably because she[Virginia] was the driving force behind this biography, we are given a very misleading and one-sided version of Heinlein and Leslyn's divorce. This book lists only Virginia's side of the story….,”
How does he know that?
What did Patterson say about the documentary evidence on this subject from those people who knew the Heinleins?
“This biography recounts Heinlein's signature technique of getting people to like him by implying that he agrees with their beliefs even when he strongly disagrees (gaining advantage via deception while secretly rationalizing to himself that he was not *technically* lying), a morally dissociative behavior often indicative of dissociative spectrum disorders such as NPD (Narcissistic Personality Disorder) or APD (Antisocial Personality Disorder).”
Wow, this guy is a great psychologist (not)! Examine the two instances in which Heinlein practiced this “technique” and interpret it yourself in terms of the context in which the instances occurred.(Clue: politics pre-war and wartime)
There are a number of other criticisms, (it’s a long review), but I am going to pass on them due to lack of space. Read them yourselves and bring your own conclusions to the discussion.
Too much detail for a biography, September 2, 2010 By Sacramento Book Review "Sacramento Book Review" By Kevin Winter
“William Patterson does not edit, does not gives us the big moments, instead we have to wade through a mountain of unimportant trivial details to get to the big moments of Heinlein's life. Heinlein might be a giant in the field of science fiction, but his biography does not deserve two volumes.”
What do you think? Was Heinlein only influenced by the “big moments”? Should he have been?
Other recommended reading on this subject.
By Michael Dirda Thursday, August 12, 2010 ROBERT A. HEINLEIN In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 1 1907-1948: Learning Curve By William H. Patterson Jr.
Scores By John Clute 28 June 2010