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Robert Heinlein, novelist and short-story writer of far-reaching and incisive science fiction, was the ”one author who has raised science fiction from the gutter of pulp space opera …to the altitude of original and breathtaking concepts,” as Alfred Bester maintained in Publishers Weekly. Some critics have even compared Heinlein’s influence on the genre to that of the legendary H. G. Wells. Heinlein brought a military and engineering background and a gift for constructing a story to a genre that long struggled to be considered literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Circuitous Path to Writing
Robert Anson Heinlein was born in small-town Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907, but was raised along with his six brothers and sisters in Kansas City. He spent a year at the University of Missouri before accepting an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. After graduating in 1929, ranked twentieth in a class of 243, he spent five years as a gunnery officer on aircraft carriers. He was forced to retire from the Navy on permanent disability after developing tuberculosis in 1934. He then briefly attended the University of California, Los Angeles, studying physics and mathematics, but his continuing ill health forced him to move to Colorado to recuperate. In the next few years he tried a variety of ventures, including mining for silver in Colorado, selling real estate, and running (unsuccessfully) for public office, back in California.
In 1938, while casting about for a way to raise money to make a mortgage payment on his home, he chanced upon an editorial in Astounding Science-Fiction, which suggested that readers try their hands at writing and submit a story for publication and a cash prize. Heinlein, who had been reading science fiction almost as long as he had known how to read, worked on his submission for four days, and he liked it enough to send it first to a higher paying market (Collier’s), where it did not sell. Then, eventually, he sent it to Astounding Science-Fiction, where it did. “Life-Line,” which later appeared in the story collection The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950), appeared in the August 1939 issue, and Heinlein’s career as a science-fiction writer had begun. In the next three years Heinlein published twenty-eight stories of varying lengths, under a variety of pseudonyms. All but four of these stories appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction or Unknown Worlds. They radically changed the face of science fiction.
War and Other Industries
For a time during World War II, Heinlein stopped writing science fiction. Instead, he lent his expertise in aeronautical engineering to the Philadelphia naval yards. When Heinlein returned to writing in 1947, he set his sights on better-paying markets, moving from the cheaper pulp magazines to such prestigious mainstream glossies as the Saturday Evening Post, Argosy, and Bluebook. Heinlein was the first major science fiction writer to break out of category and reach the larger general fiction market. In the process, he broke down the walls that had isolated science fiction for so long. His work also began to be published in hardcover. After some revision he reprinted such Astounding Science-Fiction stories as ”Beyond This Horizon” (1948) and ”Sixth Column” (1949), and he began a new series of original juvenile fiction, the first being his earliest hardcover book, Rocketship Galileo (1947).
In the 1950s Heinlein moved away from magazines and even the short-story form, concentrating on his young adult fiction and the occasional adult novel. During the 1950s he also branched out into television, working on the ”Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” series (based largely on his own youth-market novel Space Cadet (1948)), and into the movies with Destination Moon (1950) and Project Moonbase (1953).
A New Sense of Purpose
In 1957 Heinlein participated in a lecture series at the University of Chicago, arguing that the real ideas in literature—about society, humanity, and the future—were to be found in science fiction rather than what is ”now being palmed off on us as ‘serious literature.”’ The opinion reflected in the other three lectures in the series, however, can be summed up by one of their titles, ”The Failure of the Science Fiction Novel as Social Criticism.” Heinlein seems to have taken the criticism of his genre to heart, for the next few years saw the publication of novels that grapple concretely with issues concerning human society.
The first was Starship Troopers (1959), which postulates a world run by military veterans. It was the first of Heinlein’s books to speculate not on future scientific changes, but on societal changes. The novel was attacked by some critics for its supposed fascist and militaristic tendencies, and it earned Heinlein a reputation as a right-winger. Although, according to fellow science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, Heinlein had described himself as a ”flaming liberal” in the 1930s and 1940s, he shifted to the right in the ensuing decades. Heinlein would defend the anti-communist witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, which was spurred by Cold War fears of the spread of communism and ruined the careers of many Washington and Hollywood figures. He would also support arch-conservative Barry Goldwater in his presidential run against Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Despite the controversy over Heinlein’s politics, Starship Troopers is still one of Heinlein’s most popular novels. It won a Hugo Award in 1960 and was still popular enough three decades later to be loosely adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster by Paul Verhoeven in 1997.
Heinlein followed Starship Troopers with another controversial novel that met with strong opposition. This work featured quite different speculations about the future. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), perhaps Heinlein’s best-known work, tells the story of a Martian with psychic powers who establishes a religious movement on Earth; members of his Church of All Worlds engage in unorthodox sexual practices and live in small communes. The novel has sold more than three million copies, garnered Heinlein another Hugo Award, created an intense cult following, and even inspired a real-life Church of All Worlds, founded by some devoted readers of the book.
The Last Decades
In subsequent novels Heinlein continued to speculate on social changes of the future, dealing with such controversial subjects as group marriage and incest. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966), lunar colonists practice a variety of marriage forms owing to a shortage of women on the moon. In I Will Fear No Evil (1971), an elderly, dying businessman has his brain transplanted into the body of a young woman, who he then impregnates with his own previously stored sperm. Time Enough for Love: The Lives of Lazarus Long (1973) explores varieties of incest that might become possible due to future scientific developments such as cloning, time travel, and immortality. In these novels of the 1960s and 1970s, Diane Parkin-Speer writes in Extrapolation, ”a defense of unconventional sexual love is [Heinlein’s] central theme…. The ideal sexual love relationship, first presented in Stranger in a Strange Land, is heterosexual, nonmonogamous, and patriarchal, with an emphasis on procreation. The protagonists of the novels and their various sexual partners express unorthodox sexual views and have no inhibitions or guilt.”
In the mid-1960s Heinlein moved to California from Colorado, where he had been living with his third wife, Virginia, since the late 1940s. He continued to produce novels throughout the 1970s and 1980s, despite varying degrees of ill health. A lifelong smoker, Heinlein died of emphysema-related heart failure on May 8, 1988.
Works in Literary Context
Before Heinlein came along to change the face of science fiction, the genre’s two major types were represented primarily by H. G. Wells (1866-1946) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950). For Wells, science fiction was a set of literary devices for discussing the present. The Time Machine (1895), for example, uses the journey into the future as a device for attacking Victorian attitudes on scientific progress, biological evolution, and class relationships. For Burroughs, on the other hand, science fiction was action-adventure escape literature. Readers are invited to forget their daily problems and journey to Mars for a series of fabulous and successful adventures. Wells used the future to offer insights into his own present; Burroughs used the future as a refuge from the present, as a setting for exciting daydreams. But Heinlein and his first editor at Astounding Science-Fiction, John W. Campbell, Jr., had an entirely different notion as to what science fiction should be and do. They wished to make the future believable, plausible, possible. Heinlein’s stories convinced a whole generation that man will really be able to do things they could only imagine now—and that generation grew up and sent Apollo missions to the Moon in 1969. Heinlein’s speculative science fiction showed that the future need not be either a symbolic representation of the present or a refuge from real-life problems. It is also something to be shaped by people today. As Heinlein wrote in 1952, ”Youths who build hot-rods are not dismayed by spaceships; in their adult years they will build such ships. In the meantime they will read stories of interplanetary travel.” Heinlein wrote many such stories for exactly that audience.
Works in Critical Context
Heinlein is widely considered the ”dean” of science-fiction writers. Although some critics find fault with some of the conclusions he draws from his rigid logic, almost all agree that his bold exploration of social themes actively challenges prevailing views of society, and has helped elevate science fiction from escapist entertainment to literature of the first order. His works, especially Stranger in a Strange Land, have maintained a cult-like popularity, and his later works were greeted with anticipation, hitting numerous bestseller lists. Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for his novels and the first Nebula Grandmaster Award for overall achievement in the science fiction genre.
Stranger in a Strange
Land Because of its weighty themes, Heinlein’s novels have always generated a strong response from critics. Stranger in a Strange Land was, as David N. Samuelson wrote in Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, ”in some ways emblematic of the Sixties. …It fit the iconoclastic mood of the time, attacking human folly under several guises, especially in the person or persons of the Establishment: government, the military, organized religion.” Robert Scholes and Eric S. Rabkin wrote in Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision that the values of the sixties could hardly have found a more congenial expression.” Heinlein explained to R. A. Jelliffe in the Chicago Tribune that, in Stranger in a Strange Land, he intended to examine every major axiom of the Western culture, to question each axiom, throw doubt on it—and, if possible, to make the antithesis of each axiom appear a possible and perhaps desirable thing—rather than unthinkable.” This ambitious attack caused a major upheaval in science fiction.
- Asimov, Isaac. I, Asimov: A Memoir. New York: Doubleday, 1994. Franklin, Howard Bruce. Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press,1980.
- Moskowitz, Sam. Seekers of Tomorrow: Masters of Modern Science Fiction. New York: Ballantine, 1967.
- Samuelson, David N. ”The Frontier Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein.” In Clareson, Thomas D., ed. Voices for the Future, volume 1. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1976.
- Scholes, Robert and Eric S. Rabkin. Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision. New York: Oxford University Press,1977.
- Slusser, George Edgar. The Classic Years of Robert A. Heinlein. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. Wollheim, Donald A. The Universe Makers: Science Fiction Today. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.
- Bester, Alfred. ”Robert Heinlein.” Publishers Weekly (July 2, 1973).
- Jelliffe, R. A. ”Alice in Wonderland Tale for Space Age Grownups.” Chicago Tribune (August 6, 1961).
- Parkin-Speer, Diane. ”Robert A. Heinlein: The Novelist as Preacher.” Extrapolation (Fall 1979).
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