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Tunnel in the Sky 
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
holmesiv wrote:
I thought Mr. Kiku in The Star Beast was a rounded-enough character, given that the novel was comic in nature. I also believe Greenberg was treated appropriately. I disagree that Carolyn in Tunnel is not a rounded character. I've said before she is probably my favorite character in the juveniles.

Kind of a sidelight on the main discussion - the topic isn't 'fully rounded characters,' which is a separate problem with some of Heinlein's descriptions, but whether his attempts to characterize non-white, non-middle American figures succeeds. I think his failures greatly outweigh his successes... especially in that I can't think of any notable successes.

Kiku is a fantastic character, but if you substituted a few adjectives he could be any race, any culture - say, if his meditation focus was on brochures for homes in Peru or Alaska or Indonesia, it would not change the character much. I can't bring anything much to mind about Greenberg except that from his name, he was intended to be Jewish - what other characteristics did he have? Even Caroline, another great character, could be made almost any race or culture with a few adjective shifts.

That's the point, really. Heinlein wrote a very narrow range of character types, all of which were pretty damn Northern European/US Midwestern, and mentioning the war bonnet one wears doesn't make him a convincing Sioux.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 2:58 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
BillMullins wrote:
I don't disagree, but it's not like most of his Midwestern white characters are all that convincing, either.

We'd have to delve into the meaning of 'convincing' to get much further. :)

I think most of his characters are convincing as what they are - at least, primary characters and not those like you point out that are meant to be stage props. But like nearly all popular writing through the 1960s or so, the unspoken assumption is that everyone is white, probably northern European in ancestry, speaks English as their natal tongue, is probably Christian (by family if not in practice) and so forth - to move away from this wonder-bread center was a radical act and one few writers could do convincingly. Especially writers in the constricted backwater of sf.

Heinlein's to be commended for both seeing the problem and his efforts to remedy it and shake up readers's (and editors's) perceptions. But his execution of it is one of his weakest facets.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 3:05 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
I think you're being too kind and trying too hard to write additions to the already lengthy Heinlein Apologia.

Heinlein was a man of his time, and his time was the 1920s. I would be very surprised if any of his attitudes were still in flux as late as the mid-1950s; besides such changes in lifetime orientation being rare after 50 or so (even after 35 or so), Heinlein has a demonstrated record of holding on to his beliefs and values.


Wait a minute. You're conflating two very different arguments here. The first one is whether Heinlein portrayed racial differences between characters convincingly. We're all in violent agreement that he didn't even affect regional differences between characters. (I don't know that I would call them "Midwestern," either, though; they seem to fit equally well in San Francisco or New York.)

The second argument you're making is something nebulous regarding his attitudes towards race. I don't see that these two arguments are or need be related. You were reacting to my assertion that perhaps he deliberately didn't attempt characterizations of alternate races because he knew he couldn't do it well. Certainly he read Twain and would have read Gone With the Wind and could not have failed to know that more nuanced characterizations than his own were possible. I don't see why we should consider him being a prisoner of the prevailing attitudes about race when he was not a prisoner of the prevailing attitudes regarding gender roles. He as much as anyone helped reshape sexual mores come the sixties.

I argue that he must have made conscious choices because he demonstrated over and over the ability to analyze such things with a highly critical eye; given reams of his keen observations I am simply applying Occam's Razor in claiming that he would not have a blind spot in this area. I am sure, though, that he knew very well who his audience was and what would sell to them (and what would be held up by the editors), and that shaped his writing too. An openly Negro protagonist would not have sold to Boys' Life.


Mon Sep 03, 2012 3:58 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
PeterScott wrote:
I am sure, though, that he knew very well who his audience was and what would sell to them (and what would be held up by the editors), and that shaped his writing too. An openly Negro protagonist would not have sold to Boys' Life.


Aye, there's the rub. Heinlein was doing two things--a "Great Work" of mind expansion of the up and coming generations(s) and making a living; he wasn't, thank The PRINCIPLE, trying to be "artistic." Commercial fiction doesn't lend itself to breaking the rules in order to prove how far superior to the bourgeois is the author.

"--All You Zombies--" shows what he could do when he wanted a tour de force. Anyone want to suggest that the Unmarried Mother is a flat Midwestern white boy? :P

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Tue Sep 04, 2012 4:02 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
RobertPearson wrote:
"--All You Zombies--" shows what he could do when he wanted a tour de force. Anyone want to suggest that the Unmarried Mother is a flat Midwestern white boy?

I was about to respond, "No, she's a Midwestern white girl."

But all seriousness aside, the only salient feature of the UM's character is that he changes sex. The story is completely plot-driven, and the UM, as much as any of Heinlein's characters, is a prototypical example of what I said earlier: That many of Heinlein's characters exist and are defined by what the plot requires to move forward, rather than the arc being driven by the way a character would respond to initial events and the setting.


Tue Sep 04, 2012 4:26 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
I think most of his characters are convincing as what they are


This was something I should have included in my earlier post. His characters are what they need to be, and many are quite memorable. But the fact that Heinlein has defined many of them in terms of what his plots required is one reason that Panshin's "three stages" man almost makes sense (at a very shallow level).


Tue Sep 04, 2012 4:30 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
PeterScott wrote:
Wait a minute. You're conflating two very different arguments here.

No, it's one coherent argument: Heinlein's racial characterizations, while well-intended and ahead of the curve, were not very convincing... because his ingrained attitudes kept him from seeing nonwhites as anything but "others." His best effort was to paint colors on white characters, and this persisted to the end of his career.

As for his successes with gender roles... I think you're attributing too much to him there as well because it's traditional to do so. Not many of his female characters are convincingly female; they are rootin-tootin' cross-dressers with great mammalian development. He is again to be commended for his efforts, but in the end their femininity is as two-dimensional as Rod Walker's skin color.

Name one significant female character who is convincingly female - that is, cannot be changed into a male character with a few adjective and noun shifts. I can think of one "mostly" success off the top of my head, and no good second one.

I'll give you a sharp, clear, modern example of a Heinlein Woman: Captain Elizabeth Lochley in B5. Not once - not one single time - does she say a word, evince an emotion, or in any way act in a way that you couldn't overdub her with a male form and voice and have it make the slightest difference. Yet she's extremely, tastily, attractively "female" - it's such a sci-fi cliche it makes me shiver.


Tue Sep 04, 2012 4:30 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
JamesGifford wrote:
Name one significant female character who is convincingly female - that is, cannot be changed into a male character with a few adjective and noun shifts. I can think of one "mostly" success off the top of my head, and no good second one.

Both Holly and Ariel from "Menace from Earth". Belle Darkin ( her older incarnation) from The Door into Summer. Michelle Holmes from Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Star from Glory Road. Penny from Double Star.


Tue Sep 04, 2012 10:37 pm
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
BillMullins wrote:
Both Holly and Ariel from "Menace from Earth". Belle Darkin ( her older incarnation) from The Door into Summer. Michelle Holmes from Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Star from Glory Road. Penny from Double Star.

Correct on all counts as answers to the way I asked the question. I didn't frame my query to exclude characters defined by their situation. F'rex, if I write a story that includes a mother superior, I don't have to give the character a single feminine characteristic for her to be inarguably female. (We'll steer away from all 21st-century gender-bending here.)

Other than being set up by the situation as necessarily female characters, only one or two of these characters are what I'd call "convincingly female"; their dialogue, actions, etc. are generic-male. Many - maybe all - of the wife/partner characters could indeed be painted over as males (no change in a word they say or an action they take) if the story were tweaked to be a same-gender couple. Even Heinlein's few gay male characters are more believable than his slightly more numerous lesbian/bi females.

The one character that truly seems to resonate as female through and through is Jill (Stranger). I can't quite put my finger on why.

To be fair, it can be difficult for a writer to make a significantly genderized character unless something in the story calls for it. What I'd call Heinlein on is that he made a point of, and is praised for, making a Big Frappin' Deal that this character or that was a woman... but other than external descriptives, failed to make the character female. It's only half a win to make the US President a woman in 1953 if she's just Ike with a full chest.


Wed Sep 05, 2012 4:29 am
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Post Re: Tunnel in the Sky
Well... prove by counterexample: name convincingly female characters created by other well-known male sciffy authors.


Wed Sep 05, 2012 5:47 pm
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