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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

RAH heirs?

posted by Adrienne Martini @ 12:55 PM 

Since Heinlein's death -- actually, well before he died but the situation became more acute post-mortem -- the genre has been trying to find the writer who will replace the Grand Master. Various names have been bandied about. Spider Robinson has long been a contender and was tapped to finish, Variable Star, a partial manuscript Heinlein left behind. Charlie Stross's Saturn's Children was an homage/pastiche/tribute of Heinlein's Friday. John Scalzi's Old Man's War books get dropped in the Heinlein hopper as well, if only because they capture RAH's clear prose and smart heroes.

Admittedly, it's a silly task, this trying to find someone who will give readers the same experience as one of the field's icons. Writing in another person's style is akin to wearing another person's underpants. It's unsettling and uncomfortable on a number of levels.*

But if I had to anoint one current writer as the one who captures that feeling I get when I read Heinlein, I would drip the oil on John Varley's forehead.

I have read Steel Beach more times than I can count, frankly, and love it more each time. Ditto The Golden Globe. My abiding affection for these books comes not from their Heinlein-ness but from their Varley-ness, whose work has a singular voice that hits all of the best notes of Heinlein's work while investing it with a greater sense of human failings and modern panache.

This carries into Varley's last three titles -- the Red Thunder, Red Lightening, Rolling Thunder series -- that are clear hat-tips to Heinlein's juveniles without ever attempting to imitate them. Varley knows that a wide number of his readers will get all of the Heinlein references** but doesn't let them stand in the way of spinning his adventure stories that rely both on the moxie of his young heroes and on the reader's knowledge of the last 30 years.

So while I wait for Varley to publish his next book, whose work do you think captures the Heinlein voice and ethos while still maintaining their own voice and ethos? And do you think it is fair to label any given writer "the next Heinlein?"

* Some of those titles succeed because the writers in question never tried to bend their voice into a strange shape. And some of those titles, imo, fail because the writers tried too hard to make it work.

** Two of my favorites are from Rolling Thunder:
1) "Somebody once said that teenagers should be raised in a barrel and fed through the bunghole, then decanted when they're twenty. I should know; I admit it, I was a prime candidate for encooperage...until recently."
2) SPOILERISH: "I'm going to miss my home, the Red Planet. But now I'm between planets. Now it's time for the stars."

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Blogger Russell Letson said...

I'm not sure that it's possible, at this point in history, to do more than approximate the impact and influence of Heinlein--which is a rather different proposition from producing work that emulates or pays tribute to him. All the writers cited have done the latter, with varying degrees of success. But the impact and influence (hereafter I&I, at the risk of putting a Rastafarian spin on it) was a function of Heinlein's particular talent and sensibility in the context of SF-as-it-was, say, 1939-60. In that 21 years, he demonstrated how to frame a science-fictional world, how to write snappy copy, how to juggle engineering and socio-political thinking within the framework of an adventure story. Everybody either went to school on Heinlein or at least acknowledged the importance of his approach. And the New Wave can be seen as a reaction to/rejection of his I&I.

The writer I'd say comes closest to a Heinlein-scale I&I after that period is William Gibson, who made two generations of writers try to match Neuromancer and its successors--not just the furniture and plot conventions of cyberpunk but the whole black-leather-and-mirrorshades Attitude. Just as the mix of libertarianism and traditional patriotism became the cultural hallmark of Heinleinistas (as distinct from fans/readers), that cyberpunk Attitude (amplified by more Attitudinous writers like John Shirley and Bruce Sterling) bled over into lifestyle territory.

I'm not sure what figure would fill that I&I slot for contemporary teenagers--the delivery systems for narrative are all over the place and the motif-hoard of SF has been broken into and scattered all across that story-telling space. If we include fantasy, J.K Rowling is probably the single most "influential" writer for younger readers, but I wonder whether her I&I isn't more a function of her audience's lack of familiarity with the traditions that she draws on--her work is (and I judge from the films rather than the novels, so I am prepared for a hail of old fruit and veggies) derivative rather than ground-breaking. The Rowling influence I see is mostly me-too opportunism rather than the exploration and expansion of territory opened by a pioneering artist.

December 16, 2009 4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admit I wrote my hommage to RAH, JUPITER PROJECT, in his voice. It taught me a lot about writjng to do so, when I was trying to find my own voice. This is the often years-long wandering a writer does. Maybe Gibson arrived already sure, but I didn't and few do.
Varley is appealing exactly for the RAH resonances. I'd like to see him do something radical with such resonances, opening them up to our time, too.

Gregory Benford

December 16, 2009 9:22 PM  
Anonymous fheywood said...

I couldn't agree more - John Varley is the man (although Joe Haldeman would top my list as well.)

Scalzi's terrific, but Allen Steele has a real Heinlein vibe too. Spider I've always been conflicted by - I love him and his books, but really I can think of few SF authors who are less Heinlein-esque, stylistically. I think he's always on the RAH radar because he's arguable Heinlein's most outspoken fan.

Plus, what Russell said, above!

December 17, 2009 8:09 AM  
Blogger Adrienne Martini said...

Dang, Russell. That was an astute analysis. I bow in your general direction.

So is it possible to know who has the greatest I&I during the period in which they are working the most? Or does it have to wait until we can get some distance on what they've done?

December 17, 2009 8:09 AM  
Blogger Russell Letson said...

I'm sure that there are observers with high-gain antennas and sophisticated prognosticatory algorithms who can look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not, but I'm not one of them--and my favorite restaurants close and my favorite TV shows get cancelled, too. So all my predictions are of past events, and I don't tell anybody how much I enjoy The Mentalist. Oops! Drat!

BTW, keep an eye on this promising young hard-SF guy named Niven--he has a couple interesting ideas about space habitats.

December 17, 2009 2:27 PM  
OpenID scalzi said...

If you're discussing "new Heinleins" and you're not including Scott Westerfeld, you're doing it wrong. He's doing in YA right now what Heinlein was doing with his juvies a half century ago, and like Heinlein, his influence on that group of readers (and incipient writers) will continue on for a couple of decades.

December 17, 2009 3:37 PM  
Anonymous Robert Nowall said...

I don't think anybody can be Heinlein for me the way Heinlein was---I'm not ten years old anymore and it takes more to dazzle me than the way Heinlein dazzled me way back then. (I enjoyed "Saturn's Children," and I might seek out Stross's other works on the strength of that, but it was no "Space Cadet.")

But there are still ten-year-olds out there waiting to be dazzled...somebody's gotta do it. I wish I could...

December 18, 2009 8:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Connie Willis!

December 18, 2009 12:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since we're talking big, perhaps-influential SF writers, I'll add Kim Stanley Robinson to the list. Closer to an odd blend of Gibson + Stapledon than to Heinlein, but powerful all the same.

Faren Miller

December 19, 2009 6:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think there's any one particular writer you can point to, but steampunk as a subgenre seems to have the widest influence outside of core SF, spreading into odd corners of the culture, way beyond print, movies, TV, comics, gaming, and even affecting lifestyle choices, the way cyberpunk did in its day. There are website where you can buy steampunk clothing and jewelry, and I've seen kids dressing up in steampunk gear to go to Halloween parties. Almost all of the younger generations seem to know all about steampunk, even if they don't know much about print SF or even fantasy.

--Gardner Dozois

December 19, 2009 10:51 AM  
Anonymous Allen Steele said...

As always, it's an honor to have my work compared to Robert Heinlein's. And, as always, I'm tempted to run away as fast as I can.

The problem with being labeled "the next Heinlein" is much the same faced by a mainstream writer who has been called "the next Hemingway", a musician has been labeled "the next Dylan", or an artist who has been called "the next Picasso". The shadows cast by these figures are so enormous that it's impossible for anyone else to fill them, no matter how talented they may be. So their work inevitably suffers by comparison, unless they're lucky enough to be escape the label (as, for example, Bruce Springsteen was able to get out from under the "next Dylan" tag).

No one will ever be a "next Heinlein", just as there will never be a next Tolkien, a next Asimov, a next Clarke, or a next ... well, anyone else who changed the rules of the game. But what you *can* have are a cadre of writers whose work is clearly influenced by that of the master and who have been fortunate enough to inherit their audiences. This includes not only the writers who've already mentioned and those who haven't, but also those yet to come.

December 21, 2009 7:23 AM  
Anonymous gottacook said...

I wish I could agree about Steel Beach and The Golden Globe, but it's Varley's introduction of Heinleiners (and their starship-in-waiting, the "Robert A. Heinlein") that makes it impossible for me to enjoy rereading either novel. I'm a Varley fan since the 1970s, but I can't help but think he would have been better off not to mention Heinlein overtly.

Interesting comment from Gregory Benford above with respect to writing his early novel Jupiter Project "in [Heinlein's] voice." Reminds me of J.S. Bach writing Vivaldi transcriptions early in his career, and in turn thousands of music students trying to emulate Bach at some point in their studies (myself included, up through fugue writing in graduate school). There is obvious value in such a pursuit, but only up to a point.

December 22, 2009 8:35 PM  
Anonymous John Varley said...

This is kind of funny. A few years after Heinlein died, I noticed that no one had been named as the new "Dean of Science Fiction." It seemed to me that the vacancy should be filled, so at a convention I gave a speech nominating myself and made up a Letterman-type Top Ten list of reasons why it should be me.
#5. Dean Ing, Dean Koontz, Alan Dean Foster; too obvious.
#4. Harlan Ellison, 5'5". John Varley 6'6". Need I say more?
#3. Experience: Already Pope of Science Fiction in Bizarro Universe.
And so forth. It was well-received. But I notice the position is still open.
I agree with Allen Steele that there can never be a new Heinlein. I also think it’s not a good idea to try too hard to emulate him. The best I always hope for is to capture something of his sense of wonder, but in my own voice.
BTW: There are seven Heinlein juvenile titles embedded in the last chapter of my most recent book, ROLLING THUNDER. That was fun to do.

December 23, 2009 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the closest writer to capture Heinlein's stylistic posture and shared attitudes is John Varley. Haldeman gets a lot of it, too. Interesting that, as far as I know them, they don't truly share his political and social stances in detail. I don't either.
Probably the sf writer closest to RAH in views (though not in style) is Jerry Pournelle.
He knew RAH longer than I. I met RAH in 1969 and enjoyed his company a lot. Quite a guy. He encouraged me to think broadly, not specialize in my science, or indeed, in life. So I've worked in half a dozen fields, founded companies, served in the government (at the edge) and enjoyed doing so. RAH was a useful guide in life, just as I suspected when I read ROCKET SHIP GALILEO in 1950...

Gregory Benford

December 29, 2009 11:17 AM  
Blogger Bruce said...


Overall, the books are in some respects heresy, and Barnes the anti-Heinlein. Think Heinlein juveniles written in an alternate universe where Heinlein was a Marxist.

No! Stop screaming! Don't run away! Barnes makes the books work as homage, as pastiche, and as antithesis to Heinlein's work. I found them as much fun to read as, well, Heinlein's juveniles. They're really pretty extraordinary.

-- Bruce Arthurs

January 5, 2010 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hell, in THIS universe Heinlein WAS a Marxist, or at least a socialist, early on in life!

Steele, Varley, Spider Robinson, and Haldeman, even Barnes and Stross, have all clearly been influenced strongly in different ways--but then, most of the PREVIOUS generation had been influenced by Heinlein too.

--Gardner Dozois

January 6, 2010 10:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK. I get how influential Heinlein was, and how fresh and snappy his works were ... through about 1959. My question: After that (excepting "The Moon is Harsh Mistress") ... why would we WANT a "new Heinlein" in that vein?

Sorry to be heretical, but the man's latter-day work was atrocious and self-absorbed.

But since you asked ... I think Varley is as good an analog to the GOOD Heinlein as we've seen.

C. Evans

January 6, 2010 6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If one could specify the Heinlein era or works that a "new Heinlein" ideally would emulate, I would choose the The Door into Summer and Double Star. To me it's a great shame that only two such well-structured "adult" Heinlein novels appeared; both of them are very economically told (as is his short story " 'All You Zombies--' " of the same era). However, I don't know whether novels that short are salable these days, the various late-career short novels of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow notwithstanding.
- gottacook

January 7, 2010 10:33 PM  
Blogger Gary Farber said...

Respectfully, Gardner, the End Poverty in California (EPIC) movement that Heinlein worked in, and under whose name Heinlein unsuccessfully campaigned for election to the California Assembly, wasn't remotely Marxist in theory or practice.

It was socialist, certainly, but Marxism is only one narrow band of theory that, at times, overlaps with other socialist theory and history. Most socialists are not Marxists. They're not equivalent terms.

February 24, 2010 10:04 AM  

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