On Heinlein, 2022
“… very protean. Heinlein was everything — like Walt Whitman” – Arthur C. Clarke
I read a lot of Robert A. Heinlein growing up. I want to say that Space Cadet was my first book, though it might have been The Cat Who Walks Through Walls — but I had for sure read Stranger In A Stranger Land by the time I was 18, likewise Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. These books had a large and outsize impact on me, to say the least. If you had asked me, at around 30, what I thought about Heinlein, I probably would have given a full-throated defense of him, along the lines of what Spider Robinson wrote in 1980 when Robinson was 32.
Since then, I’ve ended up reading pages and pages of Heinlein criticism and biography, as well as re-reading the majority of his works. Much of this reading can be blamed on the pandemic — and some on nostalgia and a mid-life-crisis-ish desire to revisit my youth. This has inspired me to some writing: I want to note some points about Heinlein that I did not know about, talk about where I think Heinlein is still interesting, where I think he was wrong, and where I think he was right. A friend correctly described this as “trying to find a viewpoint that lines up in a favourable or at least forgivable way” – which of course is trying to favour or forgive my younger self, too.
Other than writing to revise my own opinions, my thesis here is pretty loose. If it is anything, it is mostly that Bob Heinlein was much less planned than most descriptions of him. He wasn’t an ultra-fascist author of military science fiction, not a sex-crazed crypto-feminist mystic, not a world-state-managed socialist, not the pride of the Libertarian SF movement — though he was probably each of those things at some point in his life, and those points probably overlapped in unexpected ways. He was (I think) a dude who liked the Navy, and an em dash — and who liked a parenthetical too. John Scalzi, writing in response to the official Heinlein Biography, makes a point that for much of his life Heinlein was a struggling writer. More than that, that he did not become a writer until he was in his 30s, after getting a medical discharge from the Navy and failing at a few other careers. Heinlein generally comported himself most unlike a man who would be the biggest of the Big Three and be held up as paragon of competency and effectiveness. Like the Clarke quote above, Heinlein contained multitudes — including his foibles, including his mistakes, and including his brilliancies.
(I also want to get all this out of my head and down on the page so I can go on and think about other things. The wikipedia article also used to be not great. It has been improved — so you can maybe just go and read that.)
“Heinlein”, is, of course, Robert Anson Heinlein. “Leslyn” is his second wife, Leslyn MacDonald — libertine, leftist, poet, brunette, witch. “Virginia” or “Ginny” is his third wife, Virginia Gerstenfeld — redhead, engineer, linguist, conservative, skeptic. These women, including their hair color (of all things!) are super important and deserve deep study, but this brief intro will have to do.
A lot of this big re-read was brought on by the Patterson biography, in two parts, the last in 2016. This is excellent as a collection of facts and of events that happened in a row – but we need to be cautious. Walton is correct that it is iffy on the details, Heer is likewise correct that it paints Heinlein in the best possible light and ignores the moments when Heinlein is friendly with the far-right / engages with conspiracy theories (more on this sort of thing from me later), and Lingen points out that Patterson editorializes about everything from Estonia to FDR to Alexei Panshin (also more on Panshin below!).
I had had a copy of Grumbles From The Grave for some time, and it manages to both be trivial (“A cat got Ginny’s ducks”) and revealing (a letter to John W. Campbell from ~1941 about military indoctrination). Fred Pohl, via Wikipedia, comments that the letters included are “… actually rather boring and does a great disservice to the real Heinlein, whose physical person may have been embodied as a conventional hard-right conservative but whose writing was — sometimes vulgarly — that of a free-thinking iconoclast”. These letters were edited by Ginny, and Heinlein had burned lots of correspondence before his death and at various points in his life, so we can’t take this as a perfect portrait.
Another imperfect portrait: Schulman’s The Heinlein Interview, while wide-ranging, is from 1973 and is from one Libertarian to another libertarian — can’t be dismissed, has many important things, but should be viewed in that light. (And it is notable how Heinlein’s speaking voice is and is not like his character’s voices.)
Moving into criticism: Franklin’s America As Science Fiction was written by a man who was in the US Navy and then became a Maoist — and who thus so offended Ginny that she left the house when he arrived to interview Heinlein. It’s solid, especially for historical context, though it can try to read too much into some very minor stories (e.g. Year Of The Jackpot). Written by a Capital-C Communist, it also has a bunch of capitalist / communist constructions that are not super applicable in 2022, but that are very applicable in the context of Heinlein’s own political arc from ardent socialist to leave-me-alone libertarian.
I thought The Pleasant Profession of Robert Heinlein, by Mendlesohn, was quite good. Mendlesohn discusses some of his writing techniques in ways I had not seen elsewhere, does not let him off the hook in several places, and is complimentary in other places. The Stover book, however, is too friendly for me, and I skimmed it — I don’t agree that Heinlein is the next Mark Twain, nor that he should be understood in that tradition.
Panshin, on the other hand, is too grumpy. There’s a fun alternative universe where Heinlein and Panshin did not get off on the wrong foot, but that’s not the universe we live in now. I likewise only read chunks of Heinlein In Dimension, but the rest of Panshin’s website is excellent and essential, e.g. the whole sci-fi mailing list discussion of Starship Troopers, from 1960 to 1961 (Poul Anderson! James Blish! Brian Aldiss with a two-fisted Freudian takedown! Zang!).
And finally, Walton’s sundry posts about Heinlein on tor.com, as well as the posts by various folks around the publication of the Patterson biography, were excellent (I also ended up linking to Brad DeLong quite often — many thanks!).
Edits and advice from Dave Miles and Steve Masuch were much appreciated. All mistakes, as they say, are my own.
I want to start with a bunch of small-ish opinions and notes — mostly things that I found in various sources that I found new or interesting, and a few highlights of my own. First, the writing itself.
Mendlesohn had two big points that stuck with me. The first is that Heinlein’s dialogue, the snappy talk-over-your-partner repartee, is straight out of vaudeville and 1930s screwball comedies — which I was basically raised on, in the form of the Marx Brothers and the Muppet Show. This also explains the often-trite voice between men and women, which Heinlein was still writing in, say, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, in 1985: ” ‘Look out, here comes the Galactic Overlord!’ ‘Oh, Richard!’ “.
Mendlesohn also highlights the sentimental Heinlein, e.g. The Long Watch, to say nothing of almost all of Time Enough For Love, or even Starship Troopers — fighting and dying with your own father! Walton calls this a “particularly masculine style of sentimentality that always gets me.” Underneath all the “get the facts!” credos was a big softy who really did believe in people. This is what Spider Robinson, the humanist, liked about him, and is perhaps why Heinlein got along with Theodore “Love One Another” Sturgeon so well.
Leaving Mendlesohn, it is Samuel R. Delaney who gives Heinlein his props, in Starboard Wine, for his ability to sneak worldbuilding into the air around the story. “The door dilated” is the citation — Delaney credits Heinlein with popularizing this sort of un-expository exposition in science fiction. Walton calls this “incuing”, and also praises Heinlein for his voice and his style, which is readable and convincing at almost all times: “… but this was Heinlein’s genius — making you read along, making up the world in your head, and saying ‘Of course.’ “However! Where the Heinlein house style falls down is that it is badly suited for satire. The big satire, Stranger In A Strange Land, was taken as gospel truth by a whole lot of people in the 1960s. Farnham’s Freehold, which Patterson says is supposed to be a “scathing satire”, falls flat on its face and comes out scathingly racist. I Will Fear No Evil tries to discuss men and women and bodies and minds and really big questions — and runs turgidly aground on that endless 1930s dialogue. (I can’t dig up a critical citation for this, but I know it is not my original thought. Let’s take Walton’s commentary on Stranger as a quasi-reference: “My problem with this book is that everybody is revoltingly smug”)
Continuing on from Stranger In A Strange Land, this is the section to talk about “polyamory” / “poly-amorous”, which as a term was popularized by Morning Glory Zell-Ravenhart in the magazine Green Egg. Green Egg was a magazine of the neo-pagan-ish Church Of All Worlds, run by Morning Glory and Oberon Ravenheart-Zell — large parts of which were influenced by Stranger (In Grumbles From The Grave, the long reply about the nature of Stranger is a reply to Oberon “Tim” Zell). And the great modern tome of polyamory, The Ethical Slut, cites Morning Glory as coining the phrase — though it does not, to be fair, cite Stranger itself.
It’s probably a bit of a stretch to assign the modern “ethical non-monogamy” movement to just Heinlein, given that free love has always been on people’s minds (Heinlein got it from H.G. Wells, for example). It is worth noting the lineage, given how very, very popular Stranger was in the late 1960 — and given everything that happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I noted in Patterson something that I don’t think has been commented on much. In March of 1962, when he would have been about 55, Heinlein took a course of synthetic testosterone, metandren. Heinlein had been ill, and was concerned about premature senility, which his father struggled with. Patterson is unclear how long this course lasted for, but says that Heinlein “felt able to write again” by April.
Here’s a totally unsubstantiated theory, entirely my own: did this course of testosterone help contribute to Heinlein’s personal cantankerousness later in life / push him (further?) to the political right, to more “masculine” views? Sex hormones can supply striking changes in personality — but there’s no way to know at all, so it is moot.
Before any testosterone courses, however, we know that Heinlein was a pretty horny dude. As mentioned above, he proposed to Leslyn after knowing her for less than a day and spending one night with her. Patterson, bless him, discusses this with amazing phrase “that Heinlein was known to be led about by the little head” — so thinking with his dick is canonical!
(In general, Patterson’s prose about sex is remarkable in its awkwardness: he refers to Heinleins’ Navy friend Cal Laning as “that casual and enthusiastic sex-hound”, which is a sobriquet so 1950s-starched-shirt I would not wish it on my worst enemy)
I want to offer a connection that I am sure is not novel, but that is not made explicitly in Patterson or anywhere I have found. We know that Heinlein’s marriage to Leslyn was an open one, and we know that Heinlein was having sex with other people within a year of their wedding. We also know that Leslyn had an affair with L. Ron Hubbard, so we know that Leslyn also liked sex.
So two people who like to get around are married, so what? Well, hidden in the back of the Patterson is an Appendix about Heinlein and Leslyn’s divorce, with letters from folks who were there. Grace Dugan Sang has a line in a letter: “… she throws herself at terrified men and concludes that Bob is madly jealous when he rescues the men, at their request …”. And more: “Bill Corson … pointed out that Leslyn had never been able to forget her days at the Pasadena Playhouse, that she still felt herself a femme fatale, although with her skeletal frame and general repugnance no one would touch her with a ninety foot pole …”
This is from 1947, when Heinlein is 40 and Leslyn is 43. Even taking the snark in these letters with a grain of salt, this to me suggests that the Heinlein’s marriage did not navigate a basic sexism in our society — that a man, at 40, can court and marry a woman 10 years his junior (as Ginny was), but that a woman in her 40s is rapidly becoming invisible. This, as we’ll see in Heinlein on race, is perhaps instructive.
Why Read Heinlein In 2022
I wanted to make this section a discussion of Heinlein’s themes and obsessions. Frank Herbert always talks about the environment, Theodore Sturgeon always talks about love, Ursula K. Le Guin always talks about duality, and so on. So what does Robert A. Heinlein always talk about? In this essay I will —
Well. Turns out that would not only literally be a book, but it has already been written by several people, many of whom are cited above. Instead of rewriting their work, I want to talk about a few things from Heinlein that I, personally, am still thinking about.
What is your duty to others? To whom? And why? Is it to your nation? What does your nation owe you, as a citizen? What do you owe your nation? And how is that contract agreed?
Now, Heinlein has his fingers on the scale here: he loved the United States, and he loved being in the Navy, and he loved honor, and he loved the idea of fighting for his country, which is all over Starship Troopers, The Long Watch, Space Cadet, Double Star — and is clearly what you should be doing, Mister. Later on, Heinlein’s rugged individualists will define themselves in terms of their duty to themselves and their duty to their chosen families. Mendlesohn talks about this as the “right ordering of the individual”, and about how the individual fits into society.
I struggle with this question, especially as our society (and our planet!) is faced with problems that can only be solved in large groups. One wonders if Heinlein the moralist (see below on his political shift) would have changed his opinions on duty and freedom if he had lived long enough. He says in both This I Believe, in 1952, and in the Schulman interview, in 1973, that the human race will make it, just by the skin of our teeth — but this is a tremendously bad answer for planet-scale climate change.
(Covered in literally every other section, so I’ll just go to Hoyt, writing as part of the Tor series of responses to Patterson, and agree that Heinlein-esq models of sex and romance sure are hard to do in the real world.)
An obsession with correct language is sneakily in most Heinlein, and very obviously in a few books, with Number Of The Beast being the most obvious and egregious example. This is also in Gulf, in various Future History shorts about using the “right” alphabet or notation for any given concept (math, music, psychology, etc), and even in Stranger — learning Martian is the key to what is one step away magic.
Heinlein was a lifetime General Semantics guy, even citing him in the Schulman interview in 1973. He was also a fan of … optimistic ideas like the work of Samuel Renshaw, to say nothing of being adjacent to people who literally practiced magic, from Leslyn to Jack Parsons. In less fantastical realms, Heinlein was concerned about the art of rhetoric and the words we use and the impact that Word A will have if it is used in place of Word B — there’s a letter (scroll to page 34) to Pournelle and Larry Niven about The Mote In God’s Eye, where Heinlein essentially says “this is a great story and needs to be corrected”, and then dives into exacting detail on phrasing. As a computer person and a computer interface person, I have a lot of time for the idea that a new language or a new interface will magically unlock new ways of programming a computer or viewing a domain of knowledge. But! I’ve also read an entire darn book about failed changes to western music notation, and I know how much cultural context exists in music notation and how much is missing from the “language” as specified. So call it a draw — I delight in the idea, but it sure is darn hard to do.
The Bad Parts
Why should we review the poor choices, professional and personal, of a man who was born in 1907 and who died in 1988, when I was six? Isn’t that a bit mean? There are a few reasons, I think:
First, simply that Heinlein was tremendously influential, on everyone from Osamu Tezuka to Samuel R. Delany to Jerry Pournelle. We live in a science-fictional universe, and science fiction would be very different without him.
Second, Heinlein and many other important science fiction authors and editors could be terrible people. Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov were serial, handsy sexual harassers. John W. Campbell was a racist who defended school segregation in 1965. In classical music, everyone has to deal with Wagner, because he changed opera forever and changed orchestration and harmony profoundly — and was a terrible person about 95% of the time. Heinlein clocks in at lower than 95%, but we should still reckon with it.
Third, that he presented radically different choices for society. Where did these ideas come from? Did Heinlein know things, personally, that we did not? Was he living like Jubal Harshaw, in some sort of sexy literary paradise? Could we do that too? Should we do that? Likewise, he presented a certain way of living for his readers: skeptical, rigorous, prepared, honorable, competent. Did he just make that up? Or was that actually him?
It turns out that he was, really, a guy who was in the Navy, who had a knack for writing, who liked an — em dash — and often had bad ideas or failed to live up to his principles, like everyone does.
The Political Shift
As many people say, “my politics have never changed” — our boy Heinlein was no exception. It is very difficult to go from writing what is essentially Edward Bellamy fan fiction in 1938 to voting for Barry Goldwater in 1964 without changing your politics. I want to reiterate the very obvious point that marrying a conservative often moves one’s politics to the right, and that Ginny was much more conservative than Leslyn — though I also do not think this was the only factor.
Heinlein himself, in a letter to one of his brothers in Patterson comments on this and says that his politics have not changed, but that the most important questions have changed — the Depression vs. the Cold War, say. I don’t particularly buy this, but he has a point. Mendlesohn is on board with Heinlein here, and cites a Neil Easterbrook argument that Heinlein “consistently establishes a moral rather than ethical environment” — and that this leads to much of the gnashing of teeth when Heinlein then goes and describes the ethical and systematic outcomes of these moral setups. This to me is a bit “have my cake and eat it too”, but Mendlesohn likewise has a point.
Being A Public Figure
Heinlein was a highly private person, and for most of his life, that was fine. He would become a major author in what began as a very niche field, which meant that he had to deal with some odd folks, but in general he could live his life. He was also a piece older than his peers — a decade older than Clarke, 13 years older than Asimov & Bradbury — and not a member of the extremely volatile world of 1930s and 1940s science fiction fandom.
Then, however, the juveniles happened and Stranger happened, and he became very important to everyone — and discovered that he did not enjoy it. In a letter to his old friend Cal Laning, he says “I suddenly find I am an author”. Patterson mentions a few times how much Heinlein liked holding court at conventions, and he and Ginny seemed to have enjoyed entertaining, but he never seemed to figure out the nature and consequences of celebrity. Patterson even mentions in a footnote, “… never did understand why it was that so many of his readers wanted to know him as a person”.
I think this is both a generational gap, as well as his continual insistence that he wrote for money, the “clown show” — so why all the bother about some pulp writer?
Heinlein’s writing is always selling something more than the clown show: from a small & futuristic suspension of belief (see Walton on Farmer In The Sky) to a bunch of rhetoric on how to live your life (all of Starship Troopers, say). We, the reader, are of course included in what he is selling … and aren’t we smart and rational and free because we like these books and because we like him? My goodness, yes we are! Look at that. Walton again: “the way he seems to be saying that this is how the world really is and he’s giving you the inside dope”
I certainly felt this way when I was a teenager reading Heinlein — I am sure other people did. In Grumbles From The Grave there’s a mention of “Heinlein, Salinger and other personal gurus”. Wouldn’t you want to meet such a person? Wouldn’t you go drinking with Mark Twain?
Conspiracies & Credulousness
Heinlein was a pretty credulous skeptic, for a skeptic: General Semantics, the work of Samuel Renshaw, a deep-running bent for mysticism, telepathy, and solipsism, knowing Jack Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard in California during their Thelema days, etc.
(Hubbard is a particular point, as always: Heinlein’s letters, in Patterson, say that Heinlein thought that Hubbard had seen combat and been sunk in the Second World War … which appears to only be true in the mind of Mr. Hubbard. But what a way for one to gain sympathy with a Navy man who always wanted to see combat.)
Heinlein, like Frank Herbert, married a woman who practiced magic: Patterson has Leslyn placing wards against ghosts, and Frank Herbert would refer to his wife, Beverly, as a “white witch”. Unlike many other members of the science fiction community, Heinlein did not join in with Dianetics — Ginny asked him to leave it for 5 years, and that put paid to it. He also appears to never had anything to do with astrology, which seems unfair given everything else he was willing to accept as undecided, pending more data. In the Schulman interview, he answers a question about time travel with “We don’t have any data from which to work”. This is epistemologically rock solid — but does allow one to have their engineering cake and eat their tasty, tasty mystical cake too.
(A potentially funny thing about Heinlein’s long-running — starting in childhood — solipsist thinking that he was the only being in the universe: if his quasi-libertarian texts are ignored, we’ll be left with Spooky Heinlein (All You Zombies, They, Goldfish Bowl, The Unpleasant Profession Of Jonathan Hoag, By His Bootstraps, etc) as the canonical Heinlein! Lucky for us, Spooky Heinlein is pretty good.)
An instructive example of the above credulousness: Patterson comments that Heinlein reading Robert Theobald‘s book, The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor moved him away from FDR and away from being a New Dealer. This would be fine, except that the book is basically a conspiracy theory that Roosevelt wanted the attack to happen so he could go to war with Japan and Germany. This is nonsense of the highest order, and it is surprising that a man so committed to “getting the data” would fall for it. Two explanations come to mind: Mendlesohn comments that once Heinlein moved to Colorado Springs with Ginny in 1948, his access to the new and different diminished. Perhaps if he had been in California and closer to Navy friends, he could have spoken with them, heard more opinions, and got more data. My much more cynical take is that, well, the book was by an Admiral — how do you gainsay that to a Navy man?
It is a shame that a man who loved his privacy wrote about sexual utopias, because now we have to try to understand his own sexual and romantic life to see why he wrote what he wrote, and if it was at all reasonable.
Heinlein, broadly speaking, was a sexual radical — but you’ve also got to say that he got lucky: his first “companionate marriage” to Elinor Curry was over within 18 months. He was married to Leslyn for 15 years, and then to Ginny for a shade over 40 years, until his death. We know that both he and Leslyn had other partners. We strongly suspect that Heinlein had other partners while married to Ginny, and we can strongly suspect that Ginny had fewer than Heinlein — or none at all.
As I said above, I certainly feel like the open-ness of his marriage to Leslyn was one of the factors that led to it ending in divorce, but it is impossible to know for sure (Patterson has one footnote suggesting that Leslyn may have tired of it). Contrariwise, Heinlein and Ginny seemed very happy and seemed to have remained that way, but it is again, impossible to know for sure.
What does this mean for the sexual radicalism espoused in his books, other than “one out of three ain’t bad”? It is very tough to say. It seems that Heinlein lived a life somewhat like what he wrote — even though this appears to have deeply hurt Leslyn, who he very clearly adored. Hoyt comments that “… all my friends who started out with companionate or open marriages had them either end the same way or revised the principles profoundly and saved the marriage by changing it”.
Once again, we’re left with an ambiguity. We can tell all the horny teens reading Stranger that it is not that simple (which Heinlein somewhat acknowledged in a letter to an anonymous young woman saying that love leads to sex, not the other way around). But “it is not that simple” is thin gruel to someone trying to find their own way of living.
Heinlein’s contradictions on women are legion and well known, so I’ll just list some of the bad parts here, quickly:
Women want to get married, as soon as possible, and have children, also as soon as possible. Women manipulate men; women are happy to do this, and indeed society favours women because of this. Women must not fight in wars (though they can pilot of transports). Teasing men sexually without following through is a mortal sin. Women want to have sex with their fathers (Farnham’s Freehold, To Sail Beyond The Sunset, Time Enough For Love (but Heinlein claimed to have disliked Freud!)).
And, a winner from the Patterson, and a sign of Heinlein’s lack of systems thinking: women must not work, because that will remove a job from a man who needs to support a family (see Hoyt for some historical context on this).
An inability in Heinlein was his lack of attention to systems of people, and how they worked and how they influenced each other. In his earlier books, there’s a sense of everyone being a free-to-move cog in a larger, communitarian machine. Mendlesohn says “that the idea that the right society is a collaborative and co-operative society never quite goes away”, even though his later books are clearly more individualistic. As Heinlein became more anti-statist on principle, this lack of attention to the systems of large groups of people became a more and more obvious failing.
This impacts everything. Jeet Heer’s tweetstorm about Heinlein’s Navy pension is a good short example. For a long and more troubling example, we can see his views on race.
Heinlein was vociferously against racism as he saw it (Mendlesohn phrases this as “colour prejudice”), even to the extent of writing a short piece in Expanded Universe about a Black woman as president. Likewise, Johnny Rico in Starship Troopers is Filipino, Rod in Tunnel In The Sky is Black, Podkayne is mixed race, and Heinlein goes so far as to say that he will insist on “diversity” (his word!) in his juveniles. In 1947, in Rocket Ship Galileo, this meant an American, a German, and a Jew. Mendlesohn notes that Heinlein is not writing any of these characters as discussing issues around their race; they are there to be representative or to be tokens, depending on how charitable one is feeling.
Jerry is a Man, though a minor story, provides a striking set of contradictions. On the one hand, self-ownership is guaranteed to a sentient being that is not human, which seems good — Heinlein is always very clear about his hatred of slavery. On the other hand, as Mendlesohn says, the story is couched in terms of the civilized needing to improve the lot of the less free, because they can’t make it on their own. This may have made sense in 1947 (and it appears that Heinlein did not know about the Hatian revolution — but then I certainly was not taught it in school), but it certainly does not make sense today, or even in the 1960s.
Along these lines, Heinlein rejected what we’d call in 2022 “systematic racism”, and also rejected any desire to reckon with history or change his own freedoms. Mendlesohn again: “Heinlein understands and opposes enslavement and color prejudice, but he does not really see that racism has a wider infrastructure.” This apparently unsent letter of his from 1964 or so is a review of the worst tropes and ignorances, and is a deeply uncomfortable read.
The Good Parts
On the back of that depressing missive, what is good about Heinlein?
At his best, kindness: he sent money to Phil Dick when he was broke, who was about as different a human being as you can imagine — even calling him to cheer him up. He sent an absolute cognitive bomb of a letter to Theodore Sturgeon when Sturgeon was blocked for writing ideas. He publically complimented Joe Hadleman on The Forever War, a pretty antagonistic response to Starship Troopers.
At his best, telling you to do it yourself, and think for yourself — and doing the hard work to make it march! Get the data, be skeptical, check your work. If you see someone has done better work than you, use their work without being precious about it. Be willing to change your opinion in response to new facts — and if you don’t have those facts, go out and get them.
At his best, the deeply radical idea that you can have sex with whoever you please, however you want, and that it is none of anyone else’s business. Likewise that your religion can be whatever you please, that your family can be whatever you please, and that you can be whatever you please. It’s hard to overstate how big this idea was in the 1930s, and how big it remains nearly a hundred years later.
At his best, the idea that women can do anything as well as men, or better — and the idea that women like sex and that consent is vital. Heinlein scandalized Walter Cronkite by suggesting that women would make better astronauts, deadpanned in Expanded Universe that only women should hold elected office, and generally wrote all his female characters as being smarter than men (Quoth Mendlesohn: “Checking out one’s brains to one’s girlfriend is, in many Heinlein novels, admirable”). And let’s give Spider Robinson his due, from his polemic: “He has repeatedly insisted that women average smarter, more practical and more courageous than men. He consistently underscores their biological and emotional superiority. He married a woman he proudly described to me as ‘smarter, better educated and more sensible than I am.’ ” It is not enough, as I posited in the bad part, to just get mad at Heinlein about women: once again, he is filled with contradictions.
At his best, he was a sneakily good writer. Not a “lit’rary” author, but one with technique to burn. He really did change the field. Probably several people would have found those same changes, eventually — but Heinlein is what we’ve got.
At his worst, he was at least trying to think. Charles Stross has a nice phrasing on this: “Unlike most of his peers, he at least tried to look outside the box he grew up in … But when he tried to look too far outside his zone of enculturation, Heinlein often got things horribly wrong”.
And, finally, at his best, he was a sap: he wrote sickly-sweet love letters to both his wives, cried when asked to speak to student midshipmen at Navy, and wrote and recorded an equally sincere-to-the-point of-schmaltz episode of Edward R. Murrow’s This I Believe (audio by our guy himself, from 1952).
I’ve not covered about a million things here: solipsism, being a pioneer, having or not having children, the influence of Ernest King, working as a Navy “public defender”, Heinlein’s plotting skills as he aged, Heinlein not liking opera / his taste in art (no to Wagner, yes to Jefferson Airplane (?!), no to abstraction), “military” elites vs. “intellectual” elites, Heinlein on population pressure, simple time travel vs. complicated multiple universes, and so on and so on and so on. Like any topic and like any person, the Heinlein rabbit hole goes on forever.
What are we left with? For myself, I am left with a man with a gift for storytelling, who loved his country, who loved the Navy, who loved sex and romance (and who really did love sex) — and everything else was variable over time, as his life and career and circumstance moved.
To close, a paraphrase:
Universe science fiction writer never did make sense; I suspect that he was built on government contract.” — Robert A. Heinlein, The Number Of The Beast