I came late to Robert A. Heinlein, as I did with Ursula K. Le Guin: I didn’t grow up reading his juveniles; I didn’t look to him for inspiration or revere him as a guru. I’d read a few of his books, but my impression didn’t match the extreme esteem with which he was held in the field.
Later, beginning in my late thirties, I made a point of reading his juveniles, as well as classics like Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, and found myself appreciating them on a technical level: I saw why they worked for so many people, and why people thought he was good.
But there’s a great deal of space between he’s good and he’s god.
Heinlein’s fans are the biggest impediment to appreciating Heinlein. It’s hard to give the man’s work a fair shake when it’s used as a bludgeon by gatekeepers. If you say you haven’t read Zelazny you’ll be treated as one of today’s lucky ten thousand; if you say you haven’t read Heinlein your right to exist in science fiction fan spaces will be seriously questioned.
This pervasive reverential attitude toward the man hobbles any critical assessment of his work. William Patterson’s two-volume biography, Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century (Tor, 2010-2014),1 spends some 1,300 pages in loving, excruciating detail, but its premise is hagiographical rather than critical: Heinlein is always right, his detractors always wrong.
Heinlein, for his part, famously hated critical appraisals of his own work while alive, and took steps to suppress it. He died in 1988, so it’s impossible to say what he would have thought of The Pleasant Profession of Robert A. Heinlein (Unbound, 2019), Farah Mendlesohn’s book-length analysis of the themes and obsessions in Heinlein’s work.
Full disclosure: I supported the crowdfunding campaign for this book. I wanted very much for it to see print, ever since Mendlesohn announced it and teased her introduction, which promised a look at Heinlein from a historian’s perspective.
Because I am a historian, discussing the really terrible Heinlein works can be enfolded into a discussion of his limitations (both rhetorical and political) and understood without serving as some kind of justification. As a historian, I am perfectly happy to know that I like Heinlein without feeling that it is essential that newcomers to science fiction need to read him. I like 1930s pulp magazines as well and I wouldn’t wish those on any but the most serious of historians. (p. xiii)
The end result is not a work of history, less so than Patterson’s hamfisted attempts to have Heinlein be “in dialogue with his century”: rather, it’s an exploration of his works without resorting to praise, justification or defence. After a 70-page biographical chapter that says everything that needs to be said about Heinlein in five percent of Patterson’s length,2 Mendlesohn offers a close reading of Heinlein’s works by theme: noting the recurring obsessions and preoccupations, the stylistic tendencies, even the hidden clues. For example, cats: “the person the cat loves is, in a Heinlein novel, ipso facto a good person” (p. 289).
She does not pull her punches when Heinlein fails to succeed; at the same time, she reappraises his handling of women (his female characters have agency, rare for the time) and race: Heinlein had a serious blind spot regarding structural racism. Mendlesohn does not shy away from a close analysis of the notorious Farnham’s Freehold, noting both what Heinlein was trying to do, his failure to achieve it, and the unfortunate end result.
It’s Heinlein without the hagiography. Conversely, it’s also Heinlein without the combat: the need to win the argument against him. Thirty years after his death, it’s starting to be possible to treat him as simply an influential writer whose works are worth close analysis, rather than the science fictional manifestation of the godhead. Finally.
- William H. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol 1: Learning Curve, 1907-1948 (Tor, 2010) and Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988 (Tor, 2014).
- To be fair, Patterson is a major source for this chapter. He was exhaustive but not discriminating.