On their 2blowhards.com blog, Michael (blowhard 1, not a SF fan) asks Friedrich (blowhard 2) about SF author Heinlein — best known for Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land:
A few of the things I’ve learned from hanging out online:
- How many people identify themselves as libertarians.
- How many people have gone through serious Ayn Rand phases.
- How many bright people read and enjoy sci-fi as adults.
- The immense cultural importance of Robert Heinlein.
I think I’ve managed to semi-understand the first three of those phenomena. The fourth still eludes me.
Heinlein created a revolution in S.F. around 1940. He turned the genre from something along the lines of “Buck Rogers” into a vehicle for commenting on politics, religion, sociology, etc. His most influential stuff (on the development of S.F.) was his early work, which all fit together into a coherent view of about 200 years of ‘future history.’ His writing style owes quite a bit to hard-boiled detective fiction, but without the pessimistic social vision; several of his first person heros sound an awful lot like Archie Goodwin of the Nero Wolfe stories. So much for his place in ‘literary’ history.
I like him because he seemed to come from the world of pre-Depression America: self-confident, can-do attitude, big believer in free markets and the necessity for kicking ass now and then. I read him all the time at Our Lousy Ivy University as an antidote to Marxism, feminism, identity politics, and political correctness generally. One quote, obviously written in response to the expansion of ‘rights’ and ‘entitlements’ during the 60s and 70, sort of sums him up in my mind: “Nobody really has any rights, but everybody has plenty of opportunities.”
I don’t know if he ever heard of sociobiology, but he would have been a big fan. I recall that he was a big believer in heredity and masculinity at the exact moment that all right-thinking people disparaged them. A number of his books for teenagers show an intelligent, capable, hard-working kid facing an oppressive social situation and figuring a way to get out from under. They seemed intended for smart kids who hadn’t found their place in the world yet; they were intended to empower, and they did.
Friedrich’s aren’t the only interesting comments though. I enjoyed many, but Steve Sailer‘s in particular:
I reread Heinlein’s books every four years. To my taste, he was the most interesting sociological novelist of the 20th Century, but he was not a literary artist. He had a serviceable style, influenced by the best stuff of 1939, the year he started publishing: Raymond Chandler and screwball comedy dialogue. But he never let artistry slow down the flow of analysis of How The World Works.
Tom Clancy is his best known modern disciple. The team of Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle are probably his most sympatico heirs in hard sci-fi.
Heinlein means different things to different people in large part because he published three major cult novels between 1959 and 1966, each of which appeals to a completely different cult. Starship Trooper is the first book on the official U.S. Marine Corps reading list. Stranger in a Strange Land was extremely popular with the 1960s drug crowd. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is a favorite of libertarians.
Many would argue, however, that the core of his achievement was his 1950s juvenile novels, perhaps culminating in “Have Space Suit, Will Travel.”
Others would point to his astonishing burst of creativity from 1939-1941. For example, his 1940 short story “Solution Unsatisfactory” was the farthest anyone thought through the strategic implications of atomic weapons (which would not exist for another five years) until the later 1940s. In this pulp magazine story, the U.S. brings WWII to an end in 1945 by use of atomic weapons, then quickly falls into a global struggle with Russia. After WWIII, which lasts 4-days, world government is tried, but that quickly turns into a dictatorship run by the man in charge of the atomic weapons. The story ends in despair.
Others might like his bestsellers from the 1970s after his major illness, although some may feel he was past his peak.
His 1964 fantasy novel Glory Road is not recommended. Heinlein had an immensely practical mind and really couldn’t take the genre seriously.