Robert Heinlein Remembered
by L. Neil Smith
Take big bites. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.
Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Imagine a lonely kid, undersized and overbright, living on an American air base overseas. Comic books taught him to read years before he started school and he’d tackle anything that fell open under his eyes. Anything about science or space travel leaped off the page as if printed in boldfaced italic. A neighbor’s medical texts had such delightfully disgusting diseases you could practice having, and radio magazines … in those days radios had vacuum-filled glass cylinders, see, and — radio? You know, TV for blind people?
One day, sent to the library as punishment (so much, he grinned to himself, for the intelligence of authority) he ran across two books he hadn’t seen before, Red Planet and Tunnel in the Sky. As would be the case years later with a certain little old Russian lady’s name, he didn’t know how to pronounce “Heinlein”.
But the latter novel, he discovered, was about kids not much older than he was, slung across the galaxy as a graduation exercise to survive or die on a planet not even described to them beforehand. The protagonist’s big sister, a tough Marine, gives him her favorite fighting knife to carry as a spare, a gift both practical and sentimental. (In time the reader would learn that Heinlein didn’t see much difference between the two.) In the other book, even younger kids, on colonial Mars, rebel because the new headmaster at their company school confiscates the weapons they’ve always believed it their natural right to carry.
To the Air Force kid, this was powerful stuff which bent his head severely. He’s writing this because it never got unbent. As a matter of fact, it got worse. But first he looked for more books by this guy Heinlein. What they were about, he found, besides science and space, was individual competence and the suicidal insanity of weighting it with political chains. What’s more, each taught him something about the universe, the culture he lived in, and often, whether he liked it or not, himself.
Without knowing it, Heinlein became the advisor, confidant, sometimes the only friend of his childhood, setting standards against which the boy eventually came to measure all his adult conduct and achievement.
Over the past thirty years, I don’t supposed a single day has gone by that I haven’t thought about Robert A. Heinlein. The lessons I learned from him were endless, as they were bound to be, coming from a man of his pragmatic wisdom and a body of literature exceeding three million published words.
It’s hard to recapitulate the second chance he offered my generation, given the abject failure of public schooling, since most of what he taught I’ve long since taken as self-evident. It certainly wasn’t when I learned it; it was often painful and confusing. But it was needed. 20th Century America’s method of rearing its young fails to produce organisms fit for — or worthy of — survival.
If I cite different lessons at this moment than I might another time, if I discuss them in a different order than I received them, if I select different items than you might, that’s one definition of art, isn’t it? It’s also a measure of the fact that, above all, Heinlein taught us to accept his wisdom without becoming followers. He taught us to become, and to remain, individuals.
The Green Hills of Earth formed my first coherent vision of the future, establishing the historical context for my own life, convincing me (as kids must be if they’re to turn out civilized) that, just as millions of human beings preceded me in past ages, so millions more will follow in ages to come. At the same time, Methuselah’s Children revealed to me that, yes, I do want to live forever, and that such a thing, given time and the stubborn application of reason, might just be possible.
Between Planets taught me that a kid never knows when the demands of adulthood will tap him on the shoulder. There are worse things that could happen. Starman Jones taught me that the adult world makes about as much sense as the average train wreck, and that it’s the first duty of anyone who aspires to be a whole human being to start re-making the world the way he wants it. Toward that end, Time for the Stars showed me that the universe can be a bizarre, hostile place, but that my feelings about that are irrelevant to dealing with it.
Citizen of the Galaxy showed me that it was possible — and important — to stand outside my own culture and try to examine it like an anthropologist or a visiting alien. “If This Goes On …” from Revolt in 2100 warned me that, in any culture, things are never what they appear on first glance. At the age of twelve, I was just as shocked as the viewpoint character to learn what was going on between the Prophet Incarnate’s palace guards and his attendant Virgins.
“Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done, and why. Then do it.
Robert A. Heinlein, “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”
Farnham’s Freehold asserted that nobody, no race, religion, or ethnic group, has a monopoly on incompetence or cruelty, and The Day After Tomorrow argued back that a conclusion is never foregone, that the struggle is never over as long as one good man or woman is still alive. It also gave me a second lesson (my first was in Double Star) in how to cut up and dispose of a body, a skill I haven’t needed yet, but you can never tell.
Beyond This Horizon proved to my satisfaction that “an armed society is a polite society,” long before I had a firsthand chance to see it demonstrated over and over again in real life.
Glory Road taught me, as a novelist and a human being, that life goes on after they all live happily ever after. I’ve never believed love is all you need, or that it’ll always find a way, but The Door Into Summer (along with Double Star, my favorite of Heinlein’s books) brought me closer to changing my mind about that than any other book I’ve read, and also taught me that the most brilliant innovation is useless unless it rests of a foundation of necessity and familiarity.
Space Cadet represented another sort of graduation exercise for someone who was slated to become an individualist-anarchist. I often think about writing an entire essay dedicated to comparing it in detail with Arthur C. Clarke’s superficially similar Islands in the Sky, in order to demonstrate metaphysical differences in worldview between the productive class and the parasitic over- and underclasses. In case I never get around to it, read both books — asking the question, “Who or what is responsible, in each instance, for whatever the protagonist achieves?”
In a sense, however, this is a futile exercise, not even scratching the surface of a lifetime’s education. Other lessons I learned from Heinlein, I’ll talk about another day. Let me dispose of the canard, as anyone could who actually reads his books (as opposed to whatever it is critics do), that he was a militarist, a racist, or a sexist.
Starship Troopers takes the most heat, which is peculiar, since the society it describes is founded by soldiers fed up with war, no conscription is permitted, the franchise won by military service (aggressively coeducational military service) doesn’t apply until the service is over with, and the book’s hero, like many Heinlein characters, is (unobtrusively) non-white.
Heinlein’s alleged sexism amounts to this: he contemplated humanity as a product of billions of years of evolution by natural selection. Successful specimens were accomplished, heroic, individualistic killer-apes, the most dangerous and relentless predators on the planet and, it remains to be hoped, in the galaxy. Half these dangerous, relentless predators were women, whom his male characters valued and desired (incessantly, as what healthy male predator wouldn’t?) as sexual partners.
But if that wasn’t intolerable enough for the critics, these treacherous, politically unfashionable females like sex (usually with dangerous, relentless male predators) themselves! It appears he was married to such a woman. Because of what he taught me, so am I — another unpayable debt I owe him. And what more fascinating subject could a man find to write about?
Heinlein’s real crime, of course, was the same as Ayn Rand’s, and to a certain type with which the Libertarian movement seems particularly burdened, unforgivable. In a universe with few obvious signposts, he set standards which reason and experience suggested to him. It wasn’t enough that he lived by them, he assessed others in terms of how well they succeeded — or failed — to measure up, calling things by their true names, acting on their real nature, rather than anybody’s wishes and fears. (It’s most interesting to observe this in his fantasy novel Waldo and Magic, Incorporated.) This always angers and frightens those for whom an excuse is as good as a deed accomplished, for whom a well-chosen euphemism can affect the ethical quality of a deed.
Freedom begins when you tell Mrs. Grundy to go take a hike.
Robert A. Heinlein, “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”
One crime, of course, leads to another, as surely as consuming mother’s milk leads to heroin abuse. Heinlein’s standard, like Rand’s, was heroic. If I had a dime for every idiot who claims that real people aren’t like that, that the heroes Rand and Heinlein wrote about don’t exist, I wouldn’t worry about publishers paying me on time. Not only do they exist, but Heinlein did a better job than Rand (who was occupied with other tasks) of teaching us to value the heroic in fiction, in real life, and — few lessons are as important — in enemies as well as friends.
Those who know Lazarus Long, Wyoming Knott, and Friday tend to like Han Solo, Marion Ravenwood, and Thomas Sullivan Magnum (an Oscar Gordon who, in a fictional universe less kind than Heinlein’s, never found his Star). They have no trouble recognizing real heroes like Alvin York, H. Ross Perot (before he ran for President, when he was personally rescuing his employees from Iran), or Bernie Goetz, nor do they fail to appreciate, from a prudent ethical distance, heroic “villains” like Gordon Liddy and Oliver North. They know that what the Libertarian Party needs is a John Joseph Bonforte and what it always seems to get, in the end, is Nehemiah Scudder.
Some while back, in a local restaurant, my wife and I met an old couple from Carthage, Missouri, not far away mentally or geographically from Butler, where the papers say Heinlein was born. We happened to be the only four patrons in the room, and the old lady was up and examining photos of turn-of-the-century Fort Collins. Her sister, she explained, having looked us over and decided we were safe, had attended college here in Nineteen Ought-Something and wanted to know what had become of her alma mater.
I grew up in Fort Collins as much as my wandering Air Force life allowed, came back to college in 1964, and saw Old Main, subject of the restaurant’s largest photo, erected in the 1870s as the first campus building, burn to the ground in that strange violent summer of 1968. I’d stood in the door of a bike shop across the street and felt the intolerable heat of it on my face. Telling the old lady about that started her off on the time her church burned down, what the firechief, the minister, and the insurance adjustor had said, the makeshifts they’d put up with before a new church was raised.
As old folks will, she rambled on about people I didn’t know and didn’t care about. I had my own preoccupations (I’d just heard that Heinlein had died) and had to exert every ounce of “mercy to the weak and patience with the stupid” his stories ever managed to exhort me to.
She didn’t say anything unusually offensive (I admit that if I didn’t feel bound by the Non-Aggression Principle, there wouldn’t be a church left standing above its own ashes west of the Mississippi) and I even got an impression — something vague about a nephew who’d just re-enlisted in the Navy, another coincidence — that she’d pull off one of her arms and hand it to you if you were in need of it. But she reminded me of every tight-mouthed, self-righteous Baptist I’d known in northern Florida where I went to high school; people who assumed, despite a basic ignorance of everything since Copernicus, that where they lived, how they thought and felt, what they were, was exactly where and how and what all human beings ought to live and think and feel and be, in Big G’s image, Q.E.D. Anybody who differed, who valued the Bill of Rights, say, was a damnyankee liberal, affectatious and perverse for the sheer pleasure of it.
I was dressed as I usually am, 14-inch boots, faded Levis, loud shirt with pearl snaps, wide belt with nickel-silver buckle embossed with longhorns and ponies. She made an assumption about my attitude toward life and events, that they didn’t differ from those of a churchgoing Missouri sodbuster, which I usually enjoy demolishing. Wait until she found out I was an anarchist, an atheist, a connoisseur of pornography, a professional despoiler of American youth!
But for once something restrained me. I remained polite, didn’t argue, listened through her whole dissertation, and suddenly understood how remarkably far Heinlein had propelled himself from this “American Gothic” mindset through a lifetime which, however long it had lasted, was far too short, for him and for me.
Centuries hence, when the difficult, dangerous age we’re living through is written of, what historians will say about the “Crazy Years” will resemble what was first written about them by a science fiction novelist decades before they began. The Libertarian movement must go far to prove itself, but it may prove to be the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak era. The shadows of two powerful minds cast themselves over everything about that movement, whether we recognize it or not: the minds of Ayn Rand and Robert A. Heinlein.
What’s astonishing isn’t that Rand and Heinlein differed with one another, but that, coming from such different directions, they agreed so often. Neither of these giants was very happy being called Libertarian, yet the monument Rand left us can’t be effaced, no matter how many pests pay pigeon respects to it. She gave Libertarianism a philosophical discipline to serve as its brain and backbone. What Heinlein gave it, no less vital if we’re to effect the changes we aspire to, was heart and guts.
Both gifts were needed. As we’ve had occasion to observe, brain and backbone by themselves produce humorless puppets, wrenching without effect at their own strings. Equally, heart and guts, undisciplined, result in the directionless flailing we’re used to seeing among conservatives. Perhaps the idea of Libertarianism, the unique concept of the Non-Aggression Principle, should have been enough, but with origins in this particular culture at this particular time, it was doomed to succumb, sooner or later, to cancerous factionalism among its proponents or a paralysis of liberaloid self-doubt.
Combined, however, the unique idea of Libertarianism, supplemented by suitable amounts of brain, heart, guts, and backbone, may just give us a ten-toe hold on the unstoppable wave of the future.
Beat the plowshares back into swords.
The other was a maiden aunt’s dream.
Robert A. Heinlein,
This essay first appeared in the Fall/Winter 1988 issue of NOMOS. It will appear in this updated form in L. Neil Smith’s forthcoming collection of speeches and essays, Lever Action.
L. Neil Smith
Author: The Probability Borach, The Crystal Empire, The Lando Calrissian Adventures, Henry Martyn, Pallas and (forthcoming) Lever Action and Bretta Martyn.
Mr. Smith’s celebrated first novel, The Probability Broach, was be republished, in unexpurgated form, by TOR Books in October, 1996.