21 August 2007

Yesterday's Tomorrows: Robert A. Heinlein

by Graham Sleight

from Locus Magazine, August 2007

Robert A. Heinlein, 1940s
Robert A. Heinlein, 1940s The Past Through Tomorrow, Robert A. Heinlein (Putnam, 668pp, hc) 1967. Cover by Ben Feder. (Ace 0-441-65304-9, $4.95, 830pp, pb) 1987.

Double Star, Robert A. Heinlein (Doubleday, 186pp, hc) 1956. Cover by Mel Hunter. (Del Rey 978-0-345-33013-0, $6.99, 256pp, pb) 1986.

The Door into Summer, Robert A. Heinlein (Doubleday, 188pp, hc) 1957. Cover by Mel Hunter. (Gollancz 0575070544, £9.95, 192pp, pb) 2000.

Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein (Putnam, 309pp, hc) 1959. Cover by Jerry Robinson. (Ace 978-0-441-78358-8, $6.99, 264pp, pb) 1987. (Hodder & Stoughton 0340837934, £7.99, 224pp, pb) 2005.

Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein (Putnam, 408pp, hc) 1961. Cover by Ben Feder. (Ace 0-441-79034-8, $6.99, 438pp) 1987.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert A. Heinlein (Putnam, 384pp, hc) 1966. (Orb 0-312-86355-1, $14.95, 384pp, tp) 1997. (Hodder & Stoughton 0340837942, £6.99) 2005.


A few pages into his story "The Roads Must Roll" (1940), Robert Heinlein shows us his protagonist Larry Gaines shouting "Halt!" to a group of commuters on the eponymous rolling roadways. They stop:

There is something about a command issued by one who is used to being obeyed which enforces compliance. It may be intonation, or possibly a more esoteric power, such as animal tamers are reputed to be able to exercise in controlling ferocious beasts. But it does exist, and can be used to compel even those not habituated to experience.

It's not difficult to imagine that as a piece of self-description. Rereading Heinlein's stories now in conjunction with those of his contemporaries in Astounding — "Doc" Smith, say — is to be struck by how much he was in command, right from the start. He somehow found, or brought into being, a language for describing the future so much more sophisticated than anything else that had been seen. How could you not pledge allegiance to it? Watching his emergence in those first few stories must have been like seeing an adult walking into a room full of children.

There are a couple of aspects to his distinctiveness. The first is the worldly wise sophistication he brought to SF. (It's worth remembering that when he began writing he was already in his 30s, with careers in business, political activism, and the Navy behind him.) He had an instinctive sense that a science-fictional gizmo would not exist in isolation. It would be brought into being by people with needs — economic, social, whatever — and would be used, at least in part, to satisfy those needs. He's very savvy about the world of commerce, in a way that ushers the reader into the circle of knowledge too. So, for instance, he devotes a significant part of "The Roads Must Roll" to describing the economic effects that moving walkways between major American cities would have and the kind of business infrastructure that would surround them. Secondly, he's always thinking about the emergent properties of an invention and its second- and third-order consequences. "The Roads Must Roll" has not only the moving walkways between cities but also Jake's Steak House, the restaurant that exists only on the roads, and the use of semaphore between employees on the roads. Thirdly, he has a keen sense of narrative drive, of how a story needs to be constructed to keep people reading. A lot of his stories start with a contextless line of dialogue, often a question or a command. Without knowing to whom it's directed, readers almost think it might be addressed out of the book at them. Lastly, there's a strain in Heinlein that has its roots in the American tall tale (especially, one suspects, in Twain): wanting to talk about the can-you-believe-it feats of exceptional men. This carries with it the tendency for stories to boil down to aphorisms, maxims for survival on the frontier, but we'll get to that later.

Most of Heinlein's central early stories are collected in The Past Through Tomorrow (1967), which provides the core narrative of his history of the future. In it, humanity masters atomic power, expands to colonise the Moon, and ultimately looks further afield. Heinlein may not have been the first author to construct such a large-scale plot out of multiple stories, but he was surely the most skillful. Reviewing Stephen Baxter and Alastair Reynolds in January's Locus, Gary Wolfe said that "here are the two most important things to keep in mind about future histories: they aren't histories, and they aren't about the future." That may be true now, late in the game, when future histories are, as Gary Wolfe says, "wonderfully architectonic Christmas trees on which to hang a variety of tales." But I think Heinlein intended his in an entirely different way, as something to be believed in, as an argument for a world that could be made to come true. In particular, it was directed at science fiction fans and argued that they were the ones with the vision to bring about such changes if only they listened to Heinlein. So the continuing narrative across stories repaid readers' attention, in the same way that arc plots in Buffy or Doctor Who do. If, in a later future history story, you recognise a character mentioned in passing who cropped up earlier, you feel a little warm glow of inclusion. The author is gesturing you into the inner sanctum of those who have followed loyally.

As an example of this, consider two stories in The Past Through Tomorrow concerning D.D. Harriman, the entrepreneur whose brilliance bootstraps mankind to the Moon. They are "The Man Who Sold the Moon" (1950) and "Requiem" (1940). The first starts with another exclamation/command: "You've got to be a believer!" Harriman is the speaker, persuading his partner, George Stone, not merely that they can build rockets to take people to the Moon, but that they can make money doing so. It's axiomatic for Heinlein that government would never have the chutzpah to take this step and that private enterprise will have the resources and will to take up the slack. The energy of the story is unmistakable, with Harriman jetting from London to New Delhi to Colorado in one paragraph like some burning man from Bester. Heinlein's slyness about the world also extends to providing extracts from the newspaper stories and adverts promoting space flight — not appended to the story as in Kipling's "With the Night Mail" (1905), but integrated into the narrative. By the end of the story, it's clear that lunar travel will become a fact of human life. But Heinlein gives Harriman a typical last line, after he's just watched a rocket launch: " ‘You guys still here?' he said. ‘Come on — there's work to be done."' Between this story and "Requiem" in the book are a couple of more minor tales showing how space travel has indeed become established. "Requiem" follows Harriman at the end of his life. He has been banned by his partners from using the rockets he created. But he's now old and clearly ill, and desperate to visit the Moon. So he bribes a crew of astronauts to smuggle him to the Moon aboard their spacecraft and dies as they touch down. His grave marker bears the same epitaph as Robert Louis Stevenson's in Samoa: "Home is the sailor, home from the sea/And the hunter home from the hill." The point being, of course, that for both men "home" is somewhere very far from where they were born: rather, it's somewhere new that their drive to explore has made them call home.

It's a commonplace to say that Heinlein's work became more didactic as he became older, but I'd suggest that trait was there from the start. There's almost always someone in his stories with thoughts — with a language — absolutely sufficient to the problems of the story. Heinlein had a sweet tooth for knowingness, for demonstrating smartness, especially when it upsets conventional wisdom. It's apparent even in his first published story (and the first in the book), "Life-Line" (1939). The first scene depicts a man called Pinero presenting his new discovery to a gathering of scientists. They're hostile to his notion, that he can divine a person's "life-line" in the fourth dimension of time — that is, he can work out how long they're going to live. The device itself is relatively unmemorable — Pinero just asks the subject to put an electrode in their mouth. But Heinlein is superb at finding a way to verbalise how it would work:

[Pinero] stepped up to one of the reporters. "Suppose we take you as an example. Your name is Rogers, is it not? Very well, Rogers, you are a space-time event having duration four ways. You are not quite six feet tall, you are about twenty inches wide and perhaps ten inches thick. In time, there stretches behind you more of this space-time event reaching to perhaps nineteen-sixteen, of which we see a cross-section here at right angles to the time axis, and as thick as the present. At the far end is a baby, smelling of sour milk and drooling its breakfast on its bib. At the other end lies, perhaps, an old man in the nineteen-eighties. Imagine this space-time event which we call Rogers as a long pink worm, continuous through the years, one end at his mother's womb, the other at the grave. It stretches past us here and the cross-section we see appears as a single discrete body. But that is illusion. There is physical continuity to the pink worm, enduring through the years."

Here in a few sentences is Heinlein's ability to grab the reader by specifying and personalising: suppose we take you as an example. Pinero's central proposition is set out in his third sentence, and the rest of the speech is spent unpacking that and working back to it. Notice also how conversational and light is the tone of most of the exposition. Making the milk sour adds nothing to the explanation except making it easier to imagine. Pinero doesn't want to displace the picture of a human as a three-dimensional entity, but he does want to add to it another complementary one. Heinlein was never particularly interested in strangeness (or cognitive estrangement, if you prefer); he wanted to integrate the new into the given. He wanted to show not only the future, but also how to get there from here.

(This is probably the best place to mention For Us, the Living, the 1939 novel only published posthumously in 2004. I tend to use these columns to dwell on the canonical works of a given author, and I don't think there's any sense that For Us, the Living has yet entered the SF canon. But it has provided an enhanced picture, I think, of the continuity between the early and the late Heinlein and of how much John W. Campbell must have influenced Heinlein's early stories. Its prescription for the good society may now seem cranky and irrelevant, but it is the first of many Heinlein stories in which telling you about the future comes to seem secondary to instructing you — yes, you personally, sitting right there — what you can do about it.)

Much of the latter part of The Past Through Tomorrow is taken up with two short novels. The first, "If This Goes On — " (1940, revised and expanded 1953), recounts a revolution against a religion-dominated future US government. The second, "Methuselah's Children" (1941, revised and expanded 1958), describes the adventures of the long-lived Howard family, and especially one Lazarus Long, who also features in much later Heinlein. Both of them demonstrate that Heinlein, even this early in his career, was able to sustain a narrative across 160 pages as well as 60, and that there were a couple of subjects that held his interest even this early. In "If This Goes On — ", the subject is the military structure, the guts of how his rebellion would work and order itself. Heinlein was never happier than when describing how an underdog might kick back against overcontrolling masters. In "Methuselah's Children", it's the desire to explore. There are so many emblematic passages of Heinlein dialogue in the story, almost all given to Lazarus Long, that it's hard to know where to start with a quotation. Perhaps the best choice is the concluding section. Lazarus has centuries left to live. He could sit around on a newly discovered world and be a "lotus eater," but he chooses not to:

Libby chuckled again. "Looks like you're growing up."

[Lazarus replies,] "Some would say it was about time. Seriously, Andy, I think that's just what I have been doing. The last two and a half centuries have been my adolescence, so to speak. Long as I've hung around, I don't know any more about the final answers, the important answers, than Peggy Weatheral does. Men — our kind of men — Earth men — never have had enough time to tackle the important questions. Lots of capacity and not enough time to use it properly. When it came to the important questions we might as well still have been monkeys."

This seems to me an absolutely central passage, not just for Heinlein, but for SF in general. It presumes that there are findable answers to "the important questions." For a moment, consider this passage in the context not of Heinlein and SF but of art in general in the 1940s. We're toward the end of the Modernist revolution in art, in music, in writing. To take some obvious landmarks, Schoenberg's 12-tone system has been around since around 1910; Eliot's The Waste Land (1922) and paintings like Picasso's "Les Desmoiselles D'Avignon" (1907) have also been around for nearly a century. All of them, in one way or another, were enormously influential in culture (or, at least elite culture), and all of them assert variously that there is no one way of seeing things, no one tonality or point of view that will capture everything that needs to be captured. Heinlein's creed here is, at its root, a positivist one: I take positivism to mean that there is one set of "answers" and that they can be sought through scientific and physical exploration. Lazarus does allow, on the next page, that there might not be any such answers, that "maybe it's one colossal big joke." But that seems an idea that the story dismisses, as does Lazarus. The whole premise of modern SF after Heinlein is that, with sufficient intelligence and application, the world can be made sense of. To my mind, the biggest divide in SF writing at the moment is between those who still adhere to some version of this credo and those who don't. In many ways, the fury aimed at the various new waves of the 1960s and at the cyberpunks in the 1980s was because of their divergence from it. In Gibson's Neuromancer (1984), for instance, there may be "ultimate answers" about how the world works and why, but they're not accessible to any of the street-level characters Gibson is clearly interested in depicting. Survival, or survival with grace, is the best they can hope for. So where did this credo come from?

Heinlein was a profoundly American author, as the repeated references to frontier imagery in his work make clear. (This also perhaps accounts for why only a handful of his works are in print in the UK, as opposed to all the major — and many of the minor — works of Asimov, by any standard a far weaker writer.) The US is a country that, at least in theory, always has the right to remake itself. As Paul Monette pointed out, is there another country whose National Anthem is composed of so many questions? Heinlein's stories are arguments about what shape the new Americas might take and about the kinds of virtues that the men creating those new Americas should have: independence, determination, scientific knowledge, distrust of dogma. And just as American exceptionalism argues that the USA has a special place in the community of nations because of its people's relationship to history, so you can see Heinlein arguing in this quotation for a kind of human exceptionalism. Unlike some of the alien species encountered in "Methuselah's Children", we humans shall not cease from exploration. We'll want, like Stevenson, to be buried under alien skies.

It's fair to say that the stories in The Past Through Tomorrow showcase Heinlein's strengths and weaknesses in ways that were not to change much throughout his career. He was always a dialogue-driven writer, for instance, and one can see that influencing a contemporary writer like Connie Willis. He was not much given to depicting reflection divorced from action or action not resulting in progress. So he doesn't show much of characters' inner lives. (He would have said, I guess, that nothing matters about a character except what they say and do.) You feel that his stories are always on the side of the future, that whoever lives or dies in them, the future he wants to talk about will win. So he can feel like a bully if you don't accept the terms of the debate he knows he's going to win. And — the flip side of bullying — he can also be sentimental, as for instance he is in "Requiem". He tells you that you're supposed to feel sad on being told about certain events; and if you don't, you've failed to read the story properly. But that trait and others are far less pronounced here than they would be later. I don't think there's any book more central to the creation of genre SF than The Past Through Tomorrow, and I'm simply astonished that it now seems to be out of print in the UK and the US.

After Heinlein's initial appearance with the Future History stories and after the hiatus of World War II, a couple of things happened to his career. He broke into the slicks like The Saturday Evening Post; and he began selling young-adult SF novels like Red Planet (1949) and Farmer in the Sky (1950) to the ostensibly "respectable" house Scribner's. My own feeling is that these books recapitulate the strengths and weaknesses of the Future History stories, and so I want now to jump about a decade to two of his books that have always seemed particularly congenial to me: Double Star (1956) and The Door into Summer (1957).

Double Star takes Heinlein's tall-tale instincts several steps further, not least because it's told in the first person. The narrator is Lawrence Smith, AKA "The Great Lorenzo," who convinces himself that his career as an actor is not, in fact, a failure. He is inveigled into impersonating the interplanetary politician John Joseph Bonforte, who has incurred a disability that must be kept from the public. When Bonforte subsequently dies, Lorenzo continues the impersonation for many years. It is clear that he does good. So the book is about the redemptive power of chutzpah. Smith begins as a narcissist who bolsters his ego by comparing himself to the greats of his profession: "If the immortal Caruso had been charged with singing off-key, he could not have been more affronted than I. But I trust I justified my claim to the mantle of Burbage and Booth at that moment; I went on buffing my nails and ignored it." But he finds that Bonforte is someone worth believing in, and so evidently do his subjects. The bragging clatter of his narration is nicely offset by a brief epilogue set 25 years after the main events of the novel. Here, Smith is reflective, terse, modest, old. Unsentimentally, he reviews his performance and the good it did. Double Star manages to be both blustering and wise.

The Door into Summer also has a first-person narrator, albeit one you spend less time wanting to punch. Dan Davis is an inventor in 1970s Connecticut, where he lives alone with his cat, Petronius the Arbiter. (Someday, there's a doctoral thesis to be written on the universal prevalence of cats in science fiction. I can't think of many other things linking Robert A. Heinlein, Charles Stross, Cordwainer Smith, and M. John Harrison.) After a series of reverses in his life, he decides to take a 30-year sleep in suspended animation. On awaking, he finds that his inventions (domestic cleaning robots) have been purloined by his partner, and he is left almost penniless. The body of the book is the story of him getting even.

There's a problem here, of course, both with this book and with Heinlein's future history in general. When readers now run into a date like 1970 or 2000 in a book, they have to do far more suspension of disbelief than they would have in 1957. We know now that these events did not come true: there weren't household robots in 1970 or 2001. And nor, as in The Past Through Tomorrow, has private enterprise established permanent colonies on the Moon. Admittedly, some of Heinlein's wishes for space travel have come true. But given the end of lunar landings in the 1970s and the stop-start progress of the Shuttle program, it's hard not to read his descriptions of — his advocacy for — the future and feel how terribly disappointed he would have been by 2007. Many of his books are, in a literal sense, dated.

Anyhow, The Door into Summer is one of those books that tells you what the author wants you to think of it, but where you somehow don't mind that. It manages to be so joyful, so fleet of foot, so kinetic as it carries you along that you forgive its debate being so rigged in favour of Davis. To make an odd distinction, Heinlein doesn't have much of a sense of good and evil, but he has an enormously powerful sense of right and wrong. Davis knows that he's been wronged, but that's by reference to his own moral compass, not by appeal to any higher power. He has to fix the situation itself, because no one else (not God, or "Fate," or the author) will do it for him. Siding with him is a primitive thrill, but an enormously enjoyable one anyhow.

There's an elephant in the room, a huge and obvious topic that I've not yet discussed, and that's Heinlein's politics. Through the posthumous publication of For Us, the Living, we know now more clearly what was partially documented during his lifetime: that the young Heinlein was an Upton Sinclair-model socialist whose convictions took him as far as running for the California State Assembly. The conventional perception of him as a right-wing writer is far too simplistic. He certainly wasn't a big-government right-winger in the mode of, say, George W. Bush. But nor does a label like libertarian fit that well either; he was a libertarian who believed passionately in collective endeavour and well-regulated communities.

Here, as in other places, Heinlein often outfoxes you when you try to pin him down. Having said, for instance, that he's very US-centric in his worldview, I have also to admit that he's extremely internationalist in his outlook, in terms of both his settings and his characters. Or take, for instance, gender politics. In discussing The Past Through Tomorrow, I've spoken of "man" reaching the stars — as Heinlein does. In the first few stories, women have only the most peripheral of roles, usually as unseen wives of the male protagonists. You can excuse this as him merely channelling the sexism of his age, or you can feel that an author with his eyes to the future ought to have been looking beyond the gender roles his society was saddled with. (I do.) But then he throws in "Delilah and the Space-Rigger" (1949), which argues that an all-male outer-space environment would be far better if women were admitted there on equal terms. It looks, at least at a first glance, as if it's an ahead-of-its-time feminist story, and indeed some have read it that way. But then you look closer and see how much the women are denied agency, how their introduction is only justified as something that'll make the men's lives easier.

Heinlein is easier to pin down on the personal characteristics he values, as I've suggested already. The flip side of these values is the degree of contempt he holds for those, such as the union in "The Roads Must Roll", who stand in the way of his version of progress. In several places in this essay, I've taken it as read that opinions put into the mouth of one of his character are close to the author's own views. Normally, this is a dangerous practice, but with Heinlein it seems to me justified for several reasons. Firstly, because the views of, say, Harriman and Lazarus Long line up with each other and, as it were, with Heinlein's whole aesthetic about what sort of future we should seek. Secondly, because we also have a fair amount of non-fiction from Heinlein expressing very similar views about contemporary politics — for instance, in Expanded Universe (1980). One of the great ironies of his career is that someone who so avidly argued against many kinds of dogma should have set down his credos in ways that invited their becoming dogmas so easily.

You can't really avoid the topic of politics when discussing Starship Troopers (1959), whose current Ace edition carries the cover line "The controversial classic of military adventure!" "Controversial" on a book jacket normally means that the publisher knows some people hate it but they can make money on it anyhow. It's certainly true that Starship Troopers has inspired a lot of criticism, though it was also the second of Heinlein's four novels to win the Best Novel Hugo. (The others were Double Star, Stranger in a Strange Land, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.) One chapter takes an epigraph from Kipling, which is another pointer to the kind of writer Heinlein wanted to be — the man of the people, the man of affairs, able to speak to kings and commoners alike. The story of Starship Troopers is simple enough, following the military training of Juan "Johnny" Rico, the narrator, to fight in a future war against arachnid creatures bent on destroying humanity. It's not a new story, and is one treated with distinction elsewhere in SF, most famously in Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974).

The arguments against the worldview presented in Starship Troopers are so extensive, and the debate has been had so many times, that it's hard to know where to start. It's fascist, some say, it's militaristic, it's poorly characterised, it's nothing but a vehicle for Heinlein to tell us his views of how society should react to certain pressures. The last seems to me the criticism most sustained by the text. Starship Troopers describes a world in which military worth is the only kind of worth that one should care about. The voices against this worldview — for instance, Johnny's father's patronising attempts to persuade him out of signing up — are so obviously weak that it's hard to imagine anyone taking them seriously. Johnny finds in his training an answer to all the questions he has about the world and his place in it, laid down with a dogmatic ferocity that's breathtaking at times. This is a former teacher of Johnny's, an ex-Marine:

"I do not understand objections to ‘cruel and unusual' punishment. While a judge should be benevolent in purpose, his awards should cause the criminal to suffer, else there is no punishment — and pain is the basic mechanism built into us by millions of years of evolution which safeguards us by warning when something threatens our survival. Why should society refuse to use such a highly perfected survival mechanism? However, that period [when cruel and unusual punishment was banned] was loaded with pre-scientific pseudo-psychological nonsense.

"As for ‘unusual,' punishment must be unusual or it serves no purpose."

Note, for a start, the implacable certainty again: the idea that because one knows things about science (in this case evolution), those ideas are automatically transferable to an entirely different sphere of human life, crime and punishment. Note also the assumption that the only reason criminals might be put in jail is to punish them. Completely gone are ideas about prison familiar to anyone who's thought about it for a second: that it might also be there to protect society and indeed to provide an environment where those who can be rehabilitated are allowed to become useful citizens again. And look at the contempt for "pseudo-psychological nonsense" which might stop the infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. You could open Starship Troopers at almost any page and find a passage with similar views, or indeed stronger ones. I'm don't think I can justify the charge of fascism against the book, but it certainly feels totalitarian in many ways: either you're with me, or you're a traitor. And the vehemence of the responses to it demonstrates again an old lesson: escalatory language breeds escalatory language.

It's not surprising that Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) has been so much more popular, for its pleasures are so much more uncomplicated. (Put very crudely, it's a book advocating greater sexual freedom — not the most difficult sell for most people.) And one can see very easily how it would have been taken up by the Sixties counterculture as a manual on how to live. It's unusual for Heinlein, I think, because the story itself is subservient to the tone. It's very simple to offer a plot summary, that the "Martian man," Valentine Michael Smith, comes to Earth and spreads his arguments about how humans should interact. What matters is the background, the hugely amplified version of the present day that Smith wanders through, Candide-like. For once, it's a Heinlein book where I'd suggest he owes debts to other authors: to Pohl and Kornbluth for the density and sparkiness of the future, and to Theodore Sturgeon, for the intensity with which he puts forward Smith's views on sex and love. Indeed, there are very obvious comparisons to be drawn between Stranger and Sturgeon's posthumously published Godbody (1986), not least because of the way in which they appropriate religious imagery and try to use it to their own ends. Heinlein's not without some self-awareness here, as one of his characters explains about the quasi-religion gathered around Smith:

Let's say it's not a religion. It is a church, in every legal and moral sense. But we're not trying to bring people to God; that's a contradiction, you can't say it in Martian. We're not trying to save souls, souls can't be lost. We're not trying to get people to have faith, what we offer is not faith but truth — truth they can check. Truth for here-and-now, truth as matter of fact as an ironing board and as useful as bread… so practical that it can make war and hunger and violence as unnecessary as… well, as clothes in the Nest.

The sort of truths, in other words, that Lazarus Long went looking for many years back. (And what is science composed of if not truths you can check?) Stranger ends up as a summation of the benign side of Heinlein's worldview; it's one of those books so various that everyone can take what they want from it.

It's also by a long chalk the most consolatory of Heinlein's books. That's not just because it delivers a message of liberation from restraint that chimed with its times. But it also offers the consolation one most often associates with fantasy, that death might not be the end. When Smith is killed by a mob, his last words to a grasshopper are "Thou art God." He then "discorporates" and heads off to what can only be described as a kind of heaven. He's referred to as "the archangel Michael," and it's made clear that he may have to undertake similar work in the future. So he does his job (the book) at the beck and call of a God (or author), whose will trumps the laws of physics. It's a harbinger of the sour solipsisms of Heinlein's later career.

After the intensity of Stranger, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) might seem like a relaxation, a return to Heinlein doing what he knows best. There are a lunar setting, a politically motivated rebellion against overweening authority, thrills and spills. It's certainly more fun to read than almost any Heinlein for a decade or so. And it shares with Stranger an interest in language, in the ways that new phenomena will generate new terms around them. But the political side is far more foregrounded than in, say, "If This Goes On — ", with Heinlein's thought experiments about the nature of a libertarian utopia getting obtrusively in the way of the story. In a sense, this is a comedown for him; as I've suggested earlier, in his prime, one of his great skills was being able to integrate information and debate about a future into his narratives. This is also the point at which, for me, he starts skewing his speculations overtly to meet his ideological needs. He describes, for instance, a lunar society where men heavily outnumber women, and where this breeds exaggerated respect, almost veneration, for the female population. But wouldn't it be more likely that men (or, at least, enough of them to make a difference) would start exploiting women and coercing them to do their will? But to put forward that kind of picture would make Heinlein's rebels seem far less idealistic than he wishes.

Another trait of Heinlein's that has been present throughout but that reaches, for me, a limiting point here is his tendency to put aphorisms into his characters' mouths. Some samples: "Never tease an old dog: he might still have one bite," "You don't get milk by shooting a cow" — and, most famously, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch," often abbreviated to "tanstaafl." These are, in a sense, an outgrowth of Heinlein's tendency to conduct the argument of his books through dialogue. (For a writer so interested in exploration, he's a remarkably unvisual writer.) But they wind up all too often being a substitute for argument. If you can couch something in a "common sense" way like this, you'll almost always win the debate in Heinlein. Another persistent theme this ties in with is Heinlein's suspicion of "book learning," as opposed to experience gained doing work in the world. Words like "fancy" or "clever" often become pejoratives in his work, used to describe the men who sit behind desks and try to govern those doing the real work. ("Govern," in Heinlein, is almost always a synonym for "steal from.")

The book also returns to a theme present right at the start of Heinlein's career, his fascination with frontier societies. It's very easy to imagine the Moon here as an analogue of the 19th-century American West and, as I said earlier, to see the revolution as a model for making or remaking America. But by this time, it must have been clear to Heinlein that, if there were frontiers left, they were not in the US. There was the brief flurry of the moon landings, of course, but whatever else they led to, it was not the creation of new societies along the lines described in this book. In the 30-odd years since humans last stepped onto the Moon, we've surely become far more concerned as a species about the problems we have on this planet than on venturing farther afield. Meanwhile, the space program has taken humans no further than Earth orbit. Of course, there are still space-travel advocates, many of them inspired by Heinlein's fiction: perhaps this is his greatest achievement. But the disjunction between the rhetoric of space advocacy and what has actually been achieved in the last few decades is pretty wide. It's no wonder, then, that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress represents a last high-water mark in Heinlein's fiction. The savage solipsisms of his later work reek of disappointment that we had failed to make his SFnal dreams come true.

I'm more than prepared to believe that Heinlein established, pretty much singlehandedly, the language in which modern science fiction is told. The tragedy of his later career is, visibly, that of seeing the gap between what he had believed in and what the world actually did. In many senses — and here we get back to the issue of belief — he wasn't a writer but a prophet. Some of his words have come true, but most haven't. So his language turned in on itself, books like The Number of the Beast (1980) or The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1985) addressing precisely believers, telling them about what they had always believed in, which in the end was no more than Robert A. Heinlein. For many people these days, Heinlein is ruled out of court simply because of his politics — which, as I hope I've made clear, I find pretty unpleasant in places. Your mileage may vary. But to write modern science fiction at all is to use tools he created. I don't know if his work will endure, but I'm sure that his influence will.

Cover images adapted from Heinlein Book Cover Museum.

Graham Sleight was born in 1972 and lives in London, UK. He has written reviews and essays on science fiction and fantasy for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Interzone, SF Studies, SF Weekly, Infinity Plus, Strange Horizons, Vector, and Locus Magazine. He's served as a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for 2005 and 2006, and becomes editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

Graham Sleight is one of ten Locus reviewers. Every issue, we review dozens of new books and magazines, most before they appear in print. A subscription will get you all those as well as the rest of the magazine -- news, People & Publishing, commentary, reports on events, and a list of all books and magazines published that month.


At Friday, August 24, 2007 2:23:00 AM, Rose Fox said...

I'd love to see a companion piece on Heinlein's juvies, which I think were equally influential in different ways. As long as this piece is, it still feels too short to me without some mention of Podkayne or Red Planet.

At Friday, August 24, 2007 1:15:00 PM, Clay Evans said...

Oh, jeez. I suppose I'll get flamed, but I've never really "gotten" Heinlein. Yes, I loved "Starship Troopers" when I was 12, and wasn't aware of the political subtext (though oddly, I never read the juveniles, which looked rather silly to me at the time). Somewhere in there I read "Stranger," and may have liked it, but I can't remember.

On a recent attempt to re-read "Stranger," I was bored and unimpressed. In "Grumbles from the Grave" (more fun to read ABOUT Heinlein, in my book, than to read his work), RAH worried in a letter to his agent that "I Will Fear No Evil" was "too talky." Note to self: Do not read that book, ever. Truth is, I found "Stranger" incredibly talky on my most recent attempt, and as Graham notes, Heinlein just doesn't do visual.

I did like "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" somewhat when I picked that up 10 years ago or so, but I sure don't understand why it has continually crept up Locus all-time polls into second place (by 1998).

Sure, RAH made SF feel more professional, less pulpy, more "lived in" and peopled by something other than cardboard cutouts. But please, some RAH fan tell me what it is I'm supposed to love so much!

Also this: My real entree into SF/fantasy was Bradbury (then Tolkien). I wonder if there is a dividing line between those of us who were first mesmerized by Heinlein (a la Connie Willis), Bradbury (me and many more), Andre Norton (Ed Bryant), or someone else.

Discussion, perhaps?

Clay Evans

At Saturday, August 25, 2007 3:10:00 AM, David Larsen said...

I adored Heinlein as a teenager, and can still enjoy him at 41. The chief difference between my reading then and my reading now is not to do with his politics. It's the uncomfortable awareness of just how many of his books feature young girls who end up sleeping with their father figures. The Door Into Summer is a prime example, but only one of many. As a father myself now, I can't read this pedophilia fiction without a shudder.

At Saturday, August 25, 2007 3:57:00 PM, Graham Sleight said...

Rose, I read a couple of the juveniles (for the first time) in preparation for this essay, and as I hinted in there I found them relatively uninteresting in comparison to the ones I discussed. I'm aware, of course, of their importance to the field - especially, I think, Have Spacesuit Will Travel - but I just didn't find enough to say about them. They didn't seem to me as, well, Heinlein-y as the work I discussed.

Clay, I can see why Heinlein is a writer who's admired. I find it very difficult to see why he's loved. I keep hoping that a devotee will show up here and articulate that.

David, there was some discussion of this issue in the session I did with John Clute and Gary Wolfe that was trasncribed for this issue of Locus, including on the Door into Summer issue. Unfortunately, I think a significant amount of it had to be cut for reasons of space. My thumbnail response is that I too am uncomfortable with the underage sexuality depicted in Heinlein, and that it seems to me a part of his larger tendency to objectify/idealise women.

At Monday, August 27, 2007 8:49:00 AM, Carl Glover said...

As I recall, the rationale for Mr. Sleight's "Yesterday's Tomorrows" column was to re-examine classic works of sf in order to determine what made them classics in the first place. Or something like that. But, as I believe I pointed out at the time, few 35-year-old adults will bring the same perspective as that of a 12-year-old during his sf "golden age." I believe this is why Mr. Sleight can do no more than "admire" Heinlein, and not "love" him. Had Mr. Sleight come upon Heinlein during that age of wondrous impressionability, as I did, he would have had no difficulty in falling in love with him. When I was 12, I believed in the possibility of travel to other worlds, alien invasions and travel through time. Heinlein made these concepts seem more real to me than anyone before or since. I was convinced that I would live to see them come true, because Heinlein said so. A marvelous and interesting future was in store for me. If Max Jones could travel to the stars, and discover great talents within himself, well, I could, too...someday. If mankind could throw off the yoke of the puppet masters, and pursue them to their home world to obliterate them, then mankind was indestructible.

These are powerful and convincing messages to communicate to the 12-year-old mind. How Heinlein was able to do it so well, I don't really know. Just don't expect to have the same transformative reaction when reading him for the first time as an adult.

At Tuesday, August 28, 2007 8:09:00 PM, David Larsen said...

A response to Carl Glover: yes, reading Heinlein at 12 was like that for me as well. Sometimes for good, sometimes for bad - I've never forgiven myself for the time I said a last goodbye to an old man who'd been kind to me by simply turning and walking away. Heinlein had said in passing that this was the civilised thing to do - make a big deal of greetings, pass over goodbyes - and I believed him unquestioningly.

Not his fault, I hasten to add: just a measure of the peculiar power of his voice. That may be one more reason I can't read him with as much pleasure now. Many of my other favourites from my early teens - Tolkien, Le Guin, Zelazny - are still on my comfort reading list. A sceptically minded adult is likely to find Heinlein's many certainties a mite overbearing.

I'd add that the falling in love with a writer phenonomenon is still alive and well for me at 41. Lois McMaster Bujold I love in much the same way I loved Heinlein as a child: she tells simple, compelling stories, and at the same time she has a voice which rings perfectly true in my ear.


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