Archive for October 21st, 2009
The late Robert Heinlein was hugely influential in science fiction and fantasy from the 1940s to the 1980s, very nearly up until his death in 1988. While the quality of his writing may not have been as high in the last decade of his life, he remains one of the few science fiction writers who was able to break out of the SF ghetto and reach a mainstream audience.
He wrote “juveniles,” science fiction books aimed at kids. To a considerable extent, it was a cold-blooded decision because it paid better than straight SF. The juveniles included Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and Starman Jones, Between Planets and Podkayne of Mars, among many others. These novels featured intelligent teenagers, coping with ignorant adults and difficult situations. They usually contain carefully disguised adult themes as well, that Heinlein snuck past his unimaginative editors at Scribner & Sons.
Beginning with the controversial Starship Troopers and the seminal Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein broke away from the juvies. The former is controversial as a racist novel, although the protagonist is Filipino, and the latter’s portrayal of love, religion, family and government has something guaranteed to offend almost any reader. Stranger remains important in influential today.
In the 1960s, Heinlein entered his most productive period. His novels, including The Moon is a Harsh Mistress with its cookbook for revolution, won Heinlein one of his four Hugo Awards. His fantasies from that period, including the short story “All You Zombies” – widely regarded as the definitive time travel story – are particularly good.
Politically, Heinlein seemed to move to the right his entire life. By the time of Farnham’s Freehold, he was pretty much a Libertarian, and never really shifted from that ground. It’s characteristic of Heinlein, though, that readers project their own politics into whatever he wrote, seeing what they want to see. But he was capable of writing truly extraordinary novels in this period, including Job: A Comedy of Justice, his take on the biblical Job, involving a look back at a much earlier and extraordinary short story, “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag.”
After an extended period of poor health, Heinlein wrote his “Universe as Myth” Series, beginning with The Number of the Beast and ending with the pseudo biography of his mother, To Sail Beyond the Sunset. An extended mess of classic solipsism and recycled ideas, I find them pretty tedious, although they sold well enough.
From Stranger on, he would often indulge himself as an author by placing a Heinlein-like character in his novels, who would pontificate, sometimes tediously, on those ideas Heinlein was espousing. Jubal Harshaw in Stranger, Prof. Bernardo la Paz in Harsh Mistress, Lazarus Long in half a dozen novels, most famously Time Enough for Love. It can amusing and irritating at the same time. There’s no question Heinlein used the device too many times. But it was one of the tools he chose to wrench science fiction from “space opera” to something approaching literature.
But even a bad Heinlein is better than much science fiction published today. He explored new ideas; he originated themes that are tropes today. In many ways, his is the standard against which other science fiction is judged. Later writers have explored ideas more thoroughly, but for the most part they are following in Heinlein’s footsteps.