by Gary Westfahl
Readers of contemporary science fiction might understandably grow impatient with commentators who keep talking about older science fiction writers, since they have largely been supplanted by new favorites in today’s marketplace. Still, there is at least one classic writer that every science fiction reader must come to terms with; for when you visit a bookstore today, the science fiction section may have only a few books by Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, or even Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, and there may be few signs of their influence on other writers. But the works of Robert A. Heinlein are still occupying a considerable amount of shelf space, and the evidence of his broad impact on the genre is undeniable.
To convey the full extent of his pervasive effects on science fiction, one can consider the three, commonly accepted periods of Heinlein’s career, as first defined in Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension (1968), a pioneering and seminal study despite its flaws. From 1939 to 1942, Heinlein wrote exclusively for the science fiction magazines, with John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Astounding Science-Fiction as his venue of choice (since it paid the highest rates). From 1945 to 1959, while still contributing to science fiction magazines, Heinlein focused most of his energies on breaking into more lucrative markets, including a famous series of juvenile novels for Scribner’s, stories written for “slick” magazines like The Saturday Evening Post, and film and television projects. And from 1961 until his death in 1988, Heinlein specialized in writing novels that were increasingly long-winded, idiosyncratic, and highly opinionated.
Each of these three bodies of work has had its own sort of influence. The remarkably variegated and creative stories and novels from his first period remain the favorites of critics and connoisseurs, and science fiction writers who are serious about internalizing and maintaining the genre’s finest traditions will carefully study, and seek to emulate, the most memorable items from this era. Thus, many writers have produced their own variations on the intricately convoluted time-travel story, as so artfully rendered in “By His Bootstraps” (1941), or have provocatively explored the notion that reality is not as it seems, as exemplified by stories like “They” (1941) and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag” (1942). The novels of his middle period, especially the juveniles, have inspired almost all of the science fiction writers who produce space adventures, both the generation who grew up reading and admiring those books and later authors who absorbed Heinlein tropes from second-hand sources ranging from Star Trek to Lois McMaster Bujold. And the cracker-barrel philosophy foregrounded in the later novels was most admired by writers and readers of a libertarian bent, who virtually deified Heinlein as their patron saint and created entire subgenres of “military science fiction” and “libertarian science fiction” that seem especially indebted to those works.
The problem, as I see it, is that these three periods, even though they can be clearly identified by different markets and certain obvious similarities, do not accurately define the career of Robert A. Heinlein and have led to egregious misinterpretations of several key works. Thus, I wish to argue instead that there were, in fact, only two periods in Heinlein’s career: from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein wrote science fiction, and from 1958 until his death in 1988, Heinlein wrote satires of science fiction. Or, if that language seems too strong, say that from 1939 to 1957, Heinlein took his science fiction very seriously, and after that, he no longer took his science fiction seriously.
The evidence for this crucial shift in Heinlein’s development is clearest in his later juveniles. As critics repeatedly note, the first eleven novels, while officially unrelated, collectively present a future history of humanity, beginning with stories about the exploration and colonization of nearby worlds in the Solar System and moving further into the future to depict humans making regular trips to distant stars, encountering intelligent aliens, and establishing communities throughout the galaxy. As the title of his eleventh juvenile indicates, Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) effectively functioned as the culmination of this grand narrative, describing a mature interstellar civilization of innumerable inhabited worlds with a few lingering issues to resolve (most prominently, the curious reappearance of slavery). After completing this novel, Heinlein might have logically felt that he had taken the saga of humanity’s future about as far as it could go without venturing in discomfiting territory, like the emergence of a genuinely superhuman race or the tragedy of our species’ inevitable decline.
Thus, there was nothing for Heinlein to do but to go back to the beginning and to retell his epic story – only this time, instead of being earnest, he would be silly. His first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), had struggled to describe in a realistic manner how two typical teenagers might actually get involved in a pioneering flight into outer space – by happening to have as their uncle an experienced rocket scientist, with an innovative idea for cheap space travel, who needs some assistants to bring his plans to fruition. To redo that story as farce, Heinlein came up with an appropriately humorous title – Have Space Suit – Will Travel (1958), referencing the then-popular television western Have Gun – Will Travel – and devised the improbable tale of a young lad named Kip Russell, working as a soda jerk, who first wins a spacesuit in a contest and then gets kidnapped by visiting aliens in a flying saucer, who take him first to the Moon, then to Pluto, and finally into interstellar space until finally, somewhere in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud, he is forced to defend the human race before a council of superior aliens who are debating whether or not to exterminate this primitive and violent species. After his defiant outburst persuades the aliens to delay Earth’s destruction, Kip is returned to Earth, and to his job as a soda jerk. In the ambience of its story line, in other words, Heinlein has shifted from his film Destination Moon (1950) to Louis Slobodkin’s The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree (1952). To be sure, the novel is a delightful and fascinating tour de force regularly described as one of Heinlein’s best; but obviously, if you are looking for plausible predictions of humanity’s future in space, Have Space Suit – Will Travel does not qualify.
In his second juvenile, Space Cadet (1948), Heinlein had offered a reasonable picture of how soldiers in a near-future space army might be trained and prepared for duty, first at an academy similar to West Point and later on patrol in the asteroid belt and on Venus. As the absurd version of this story, Heinlein then came up with Starship Troopers (1959), the extravagant adventures of a young Filipino, living in a future society that valorizes military duty above all else, who joins a fanatical space army in order to learn how to wage war against a race of evil alien spiders. The story also introduced, in the form of the hero’s high school history teacher, what would become a recurring feature of Heinlein’s later fiction: the loquacious propounder of extreme opinions who would later go by the names of Jubal Harshaw, Lazarus Long, and Robert A. Heinlein. The overall result was so over the top that Scribner’s rejected it as Heinlein’s latest juvenile, forcing him to seek another publisher and ending his relationship with the company. Whether he would have continued to successively revisit his earlier juveniles in this manner will forever be a mystery, but it is interesting to note that the only other Heinlein novel that was seemingly intended to be a juvenile, Podkayne of Mars (1963), invites consideration as a parody of Between Planets (1951), with another precocious teenager traveling from Mars to Earth to Venus amidst political intrigues and an onboard McGuffin. And it is not only in the juveniles that one can observe Heinlein’s efforts in the late 1950s to revisit old haunts in a humorous fashion; for 1959 also brought the publication of the story “`All You Zombies –,’” wherein Heinlein returns to the theme of multiple versions of oneself interacting by means of time travel, first effected in “By His Bootstraps,” but adds a sex-change operation to further complicate matters and transforms a thought-provoking exploration of the implications of being a “self-made man” into a fun-filled sexual romp.
If one examines the other products of his last three decades of writing, there may not always be specific satirical resonances with earlier texts; however, I would think it obvious that aspects of certain novels, such as Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), Glory Road (1962), and The Number of the Beast (1980), are not intended to be taken seriously, and I can detect a certain tongue-in-cheek attitude even in works like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Friday (1982) that may seem like reversions to his earlier, more straightforward style. By the 1980s, as if bemused to see that readers were not detecting the humor in his later works, Heinlein began to announce it in their titles: thus, it was not simply as a tribute to James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919) that Heinlein named his 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice; his next novel was The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (1985); and his final novel bore a title that less bluntly suggested a lack of seriousness: To Sail Beyond the Sunset: Being the Memoirs of a Slightly Irregular Lady (1987).
As to why this sea change in Heinlein’s career occurred in the year 1957, there is one obvious event to consider: the October, 1957 launch of Sputnik, humanity’s first venture into outer space, which a man like Heinlein may have reacted to in two ways. First, there might be a sense of vindication: although Heinlein’s stories and novels for adults had involved a variety of topics and themes, each and every one of his juveniles had focused on space travel, suggesting an intent to persuade Americans that, more than anything else, humanity’s future depended upon vigorous expansion into space. Sputnik clearly indicated that Heinlein and other science fiction writers had succeeded in achieving this goal: humans were finally venturing into the cosmos, and everyone in the science fiction community had long been confident that, once space exploration had started, further progress to the Moon, Mars, and beyond was virtually inevitable. Thus, Heinlein might have thought, with its serious purpose accomplished, science fiction could now relax and be dryly humorous instead of earnestly didactic. A second reaction might be alarm, inasmuch as it was the communist Soviet Union, not the democratic United States, that had taken the lead in the space race, creating the strong possibility that they would soon dominate space, and thus dominate the Earth as well (precisely the argument Heinlein had made in Destination Moon). As his nonfictional response to this ominous threat, Heinlein had briefly attempted to launch a political movement with his 1958 advertisement-essay “Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?,” shrilly arguing that a planned nuclear test ban treaty would amount to surrendering America to the insidious communists. Arguably as his fictional response, then, Heinlein might have turned to the natural tool of the distressed writer, satire; thus, among other things, Starship Troopers can be read as Heinlein’s take on the Cold War, with loathsome, insect-like aliens standing in for the Russians. Later, when Heinlein was reassured by America’s space initiatives and realized that a test ban treaty was not going to mean the end of the world, the new satirical approach he had adopted would gradually lose its hard edge and become more playful.
I do not wish to suggest that Heinlein’s later novels were entirely insincere; to a certain extent, Heinlein always meant exactly what he said. However, when one decides to be a little bit outrageous, to convey deeply felt opinions in a slightly overstated manner, in order to amuse readers – the plan I detect in Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land – and when one then finds that there is an enthusiastic audience for these works, the natural response is to be even more outrageous, to state one’s views in an even more exaggerated fashion, to see how far one can go in this direction. And if those further efforts are still getting rave reviews, one eventually evolves into a parody of oneself, offering a self-portrait so distorted and ridiculous that it should provoke laughter, its underlying purpose, but may instead perversely continue to attract worshipful admiration. One observes this process in the film Network (1976), where newscaster Howard Beale, upon hearing his show will be cancelled, goes a little bit crazy on the air, sees his ratings skyrocket, and in response naturally becomes crazier and crazier while garnering acclaim as “the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves.” Indeed, reading some of the wilder rants in his later novels, someone unfamiliar with his earlier triumphs might dub Heinlein “the mad prophet of science fiction.”
Some will protest that the usually-candid Heinlein never stated or hinted, in interviews and speeches during the final decades of his life, that any of his novels and the viewpoints therein were less than entirely serious – but that is only what we would expect, considering the one characteristic of Heinlein that everyone can agree was a constant throughout his entire career: an overriding concern for the bottom line. If Heinlein was receiving enthusiastic fan letters about the life-transforming effects of the philosophies in his recent novels, and if healthy sales figures indicated that such reactions were commonplace, Heinlein was far too wise to disrupt the flow of income into his bank account by suggesting that, actually, his tongue had been firmly in his cheek. In a strange fashion, one might say, Heinlein had evolved into a latter-day equivalent of his old colleague from the Astounding Science-Fiction of the 1940s, L. Ron Hubbard, who became fabulously wealthy by launching and leading a new religion that, many whispered, was motivated more by greed than by genuine revelation. While the cult of Heinlein has never adopted the formal trappings of a religion, many of its followers now seem just as devoted to its doctrines as any Scientologist – and dare one suggest that they might also be just as deluded about the sincerity of its founder?
The new context I am proposing for Heinlein’s fiction opens the door to provocative reconsiderations of his later novels. In the first place, we can soundly reject the indignation of Alexei Panshin, who lambasted Stranger in a Strange Land and its successors for their indefensible views and emphasis on self-expression at the expense of storytelling. But Panshin failed to recognize that Heinlein was in fact gradually developing what would become his most entertaining and memorable character: “Robert A. Heinlein,” the garrulous sagebrush savant who would sometimes speak directly to readers and sometime employ mouthpieces like Harshaw and Long. Angrily denouncing this fictional character is as ridiculous as angrily denouncing Iago. In addition, a common criticism of Paul Verhoeven’s film Starship Troopers (1997) is that he imposed a layer of irony upon Heinlein’s straightforward story; but allow me to suggest that he was crudely bringing to the surface the irony that was already subtly present in the novel. I would further suggest another interpretation of Farnham’s Freehold (1964), usually regarded as the racist skeleton in Heinlein’s closet, depicting the latest version of the Heinlein Hero valiantly struggling against a corrupt and repressive African-American dictatorship in a future America. But carefully examined, Hugh Farnham actually emerges as a vindictive parody of the Heinlein hero, a stupid, self-deluded incompetent who is unable to accomplish anything, and the society he awakens in represents precisely the sort of absurd paranoid fears that this sort of idiot would develop. In the end, Farnham does the only thing that such a pathetic person can do: build a wall around his house to protect himself from a world he cannot cope with. By the time we get to The Number of the Beast, wherein Heinlein’s protagonists venture into some famous fictional realms and eventually get some sound advice from Glinda, the good witch from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), I think it couldn’t be clearer that Heinlein is by association labeling his later creations as diverting fantasies, not somber extrapolations. And this new perspective on Heinlein provides a solution to one mystery in To Sail Beyond the Sunset, wherein Heinlein argues, among other things, that it’s all right for a man to sleep with his daughter, but hey, if he ever happens to smoke a joint, he should be lynched on the spot. How on Earth, I once wondered, could a sane person actually hold such views? The only reasonable answer is that a canny old author was merely taking his satirical Heinlein act one step further in an effort to see if, finally, someone would figure out what he was really doing.
Properly understanding the later Heinlein novels, finally, we can account for the peculiar failures of the literature they engendered. Emulating the Heinlein of the 1940s, who always strived to be as boldly imaginative as possible to impress Campbell, science fiction writers have impressively stretched the boundaries of the genre; emulating the Heinlein of the early juveniles, writers have crafted admirably entertaining space operas with wise-cracking, capable protagonists who take care of business throughout the cosmos. These are the stories that attract a wide readership, laudatory reviews, and occasional awards. But writers who have emulated the Heinlein of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have produced various works of “military” or “libertarian” science fiction that are mostly devoted to monotonous, mindless adventures interspersed with heavy doses of didactic ideology. And this dire body of literature is generally and thankfully ignored, except by fanatics who share their authors’ views (and curious scholars investigating current trends in science fiction – yes, I have read some of these works, and I do know what I am talking about). And why are these stories so unsuccessful? Because they are jokes without punch lines; they are stone-faced, solemn redactions of what Heinlein was doing with wry, understated humor. Thus, I would argue, Robert A. Heinlein bears no real responsibility for these sorry products of his misguided admirers; we have allowed these stories to appear, and to borrow legitimacy from the author who inspired them, because we have failed to correctly interpret what this complex and talented writer was actually doing in the final decades of his career. And the joke is on us.