Robert Heinlein at 100

by Ted Gioia

The centennial of Robert Heinlein’s birth is coming up in July, and
tempers are still worked up over this pulp fiction writer who turned
into a consciousness-raising guru during the 1960s. Only a few
weeks ago, a writer in
The New York Times Book Review attacked
Starship Troopers as “an endorsement of fascism.”
Heinlein's defenders rushed in with letters to the editor to counter
these charges, and a mini-controversy was soon brewing over a book
for youngsters first published in 1959, by an author who died in 1988.

But Heinlein fans should be used to these deprecations. Over the
years their favorite writer has been accused of many things –- of
being a libertine or a libertarian, a fascist or a fetishist, pre-Oedipal or
just plain preposterous. Heinlein’s critics cut across all ends of the
political spectrum, as do his fans. His admirers have ranged from
Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the founder of American Atheists, to members
of the Church of All Worlds, who hail Heinlein as a prophet.
Apparently both true believers and non-believers, and perhaps some
agnostics, have found sustenance in Heinlein’s prodigious output,
some 50 books which have sold more than 100 million copies

For my part, I can accept the militarism of
Starship Troopers. (After all,
the soldiers are fighting giant bugs from outer space who brutally
slimed Buenos Aires. Do you want to stick up for
them?) But Heinlein
can shake me up, too. I draw the line when his protagonists have
affairs with their own clones, or go back in time to court their mom
under the watchful eye of grandpa. Of course, Heinlein’s knack for
offending sensibilities is one of his calling cards. His zeal for
controversy not only set him apart from the other sci-fi masters of his
era — who worried about robots and laser beams while Heinlein’s
characters are tearing off their clothes — and also keeps us arguing
about his books long after his passing.

The debates about
Starship Troopers were mild compared to the
discussions generated by Heinlein’s
Stranger in a Strange Land,
published two years later. Heinlein had begun taking notes for his
novel about an earthling raised on Mars back in 1953, and what
might have been a modest pot-boiler during the Eisenhower years
became a cult classic during the 1960s. (A copy is probably sitting in a
box in your garage right now, in between
Siddhartha and The
Teachings of Don Juan

Heinlein’s breakthrough came by ignoring many of the rules that had
guided his early successes. He had often been praised as a master of
“hard” sci-fi — heavy on the technology, in other words — drawing on
the author’s extensive readings in various scientific disciplines. But
from now on, Heinlein would show far greater interest in the human
sciences, in the anthropological and cultural ramifications of his tales.
In the place of the tightly plotted narratives that had come to define
the sci-fi genre, Heinlein now felt free to offer rambling discursions,
large doses of social commentary that tended to overwhelm the

Readers had previously enjoyed a glimpse of Heinlein’s intensity and
ardent individualism, but now it erupted into a supernova of
libertarian zeal. In 1961, when
Stranger in a Strange Land was
published, the author’s anti-authoritarian sentiments might have
seemed like a personal quirk. But with the tremendous expansion in
various counter-culture movements during the remainer of the
decade, Heinlein’s hero Valentine Michael Smith now sounded like a
spokesperson for the new generation. With his quasi-mystical
language, his rejection of political authorities and his zeal for free
love, this missionary from Mars would have been quite at home on
the Berkeley or Columbia campuses, perhaps making out on the lawn,
getting high, or taking over an administration building. (Indeed, one
of the first serious studies of Heinlein was written by H. Bruce
Franklin, who had been fired from his tenured position at Stanford for
leading students in their occupation of the computer center.)

From this point on, Heinlein’s books were mostly short on plot and
long on philosophy. The actual story of
Glory Road from 1963 is tidied
up a little over halfway through the book – the remaining pages are
mostly a primer on political and social institutions. Heinlein’s longest
Time Enough for Love, has no apparent structure, merely
presenting a string of situations that allow for rambling discussions of
everything from the money supply to genetics.
Farnham’s Freehold is a
survivalist’s manual dressed up in a story about time travel.

But though these stories might be bloated, they were never boring.
Heinlein might outrage or shock or dazzle, yet these loose and louche
narratives never lost their energy. And Heinlein was always quotable,
even if in a corny Mickey Spillane manner. It was Heinlein, after all,
who first announced “There ain't no such thing as a free lunch” - and
truer words have never been spoken. Reading his later works is like
sitting at the bar next to a motor-mouth zealot who has an quirky
opinion on everything, an angle, a take on all topics. Even better than
talk radio! And when Heinlein could hold it all together, as he did with
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — which includes all his favorite
Ayn Rand rants, but also a solid plot, strong characters and top-notch
dialogue — he was capable of crafting a masterpiece of the genre.

Almost twenty years after his passing, Heinlein has not lost his
audience. A three-day centennial celebration is planned for July in
Kansas City, and participants will include Buzz Aldrin, Arthur C. Clarke,
NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin, Congressman Dana
Rohrabacher, and a host of other fans and admirers who still respond
to the Heinlein magic. William Patterson is working on a massive
biography. And a campaign is underway to convince the Navy to
name DDG-1000 Zumwalt class destroyer USS Robert A. Heinlein.

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