The Joke Is on Us: The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein

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.

Gary Westfahl’s works include the Hugo-nominated Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005) and The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005); samples from these and his other works are available at his World of Westfahl website. His recent books include two books on science fiction films, The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012) and the just-published A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012).

32 thoughts on “The Joke Is on Us: The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein

  • November 25, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    An interesting analysis, to be sure – but if you’re going to call Have Space Suit – Will Travel an inflection point in Heinlein’s career, you ought to specify that Kip Russell himself is aware throughout that he’s the protagonist of a very improbable story, and makes this known periodically in his narration – sometimes with overt satire of the situation, such as the dream he recounts in chapter 5 (“…Will Tristan return to Iseult? Will Peewee find her dolly? Tune in this channel tomorrow…”).

    The only other point I’d add is that James J. Garsch in Citizen of the Galaxy has always seemed a proto-Jubal Harshaw to me, despite falling on the “before” side of your threshold.

    (I first read all three – Citizen, Space Suit, and Stranger – before age 14, the first two in my junior h.s. library.)

  • November 25, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    Heinlein was rather less worshipful of the military than many of the writers he influenced. He once described the army as “a permanent organization for the destruction of life and property.” An astute judgment—and one that genuine libertarians will appreciate.

  • November 25, 2012 at 5:15 pm

    Gary, you are unquestionably onto something. I have a lot of suggestions for you if you want to follow up on them. I will just make one comment here: the other two of the “big three,” Asimov & Clarke, definitely were sea-changed by Sputnik & that event has a before/after effect on science fiction as a whole. Thanks!

  • November 25, 2012 at 10:17 pm

    Thank you for a well-thought essay. I agree with most of your conclusions and feel that you have accurately snared and crystalised the feelings of many serious fans; however I believe and have believed since first-reading that “Farnham’s Freehold” is Heinlein at his hallucinogenic and visceral best.

  • November 26, 2012 at 12:14 am

    I’m not sure where Gary Westfahl would shoehorn I WILL FEAR NO EVIL into his pattern. Heinlein, there, seems to be (paraphrasing Himself) looking at the present through the future. Screeds carried forward from SPACESUIT about inadequte education now predict a future where most of America is illiterate. Late 1960s anti-war street violence and its blowback create an America divided into the enclaved and the abandoned. Media serves only to pacify and mislead the uninformed. Yet yoga, meditation, and body painting — even living off the grid– come across as culturally positive. Heinlein would now seem both partially prescient and trapped in the trends of the late-1960s, as seen looking down from the vantage point of privileged class paranoia.
    EVIL seems a break-point in Heinlein’s career that Westfahl ignores, in that after it, after Heinlein’s near death, his work grows increasingly “autobiographical”, explicitly conflating his “Heinlein” character with his Lazarus Long character, particularly in TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE.
    When he wrote BEYOND THIS HORIZON, under the foreseen shadow of the coming war, Heinlein threw in everything — economic and social speculation, as well as metaphysical speculation — as if it were his last novel, the capstone of his career. TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE seems another such, written under the shadow of mortality. (Compare the start of HORIZON’s Chapter Ten with TIME ENOUGH’s Coda II.)
    That out of the way, Heinlein seems to allow himself to look backward, to revisit (and revel in) the/his past. He tips his hat to his antecedents (Roy Rockwell, L. Frank Baum, E. E. Smith) and his descendents (Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson, etc.) in THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST. (Can a novel beginning “He’s a Mad Scientist and I’m his Beautiful Daughter” be meant as anything but fun?) He revisits “Gulf” in FRIDAY, flipping a story about a human becoming superhuman into a superhuman becoming human (a kind of version, too, of CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY’s search across subcultures for community/family). JOB: A COMEDY OF JUSTICE seems the closest to his early UNKNOWN/UNKNOWN WORLDS work, as well as a rework of the world-skipping of FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD into a “the man who learned better” plot. THE CAT WHO WALKS THROUGH WALLS revisits THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS and TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE. TO SAIL BEYOND THE SUNSET not only revisits CAT and TIME, but all but hangs a sign proclaiming “I am working in the didactic/satiric tradition of Mark Twain” around its neck.
    Most of these post-TIME novels (save JOB) use an intrigue/action opening to hook readers into hearing Heinlein’s harangues, and close (like many of Baum’s OZ novels) with all the familiar characters having a party (in the Emerald City or on Tertius) to celebrate the adventures being over.
    Westfahl’s breaking of Heinlein’s career into pre- and post-1957 should also aknowledge that the post-1957 career should itself be considered up to 1970 and after 1970.
    p.s.: The best echo of Heinlein’s later novels is Connie Willis’s novella “Inside Job”, where she switches out Twain’s didactic satire for H. L. Menken’s rational skepticism.

  • November 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

    Thanks for the article.

    I know people who knew Heinlein and the biggest problem is people writing on him who never talked to him or those who knew him closely–or don’t read his own statements and literary work closely ( anyone who thinks Starship Troopers is about the military misses the point). Ignoring that he had a libertarian then formally Libertarian philosophy all his life is one problem; he also said his work was effectively censored until the 60’s.

    For info on people using voluntary Libertarian tools on similar and other issues worldwide, please see the non-partisan Libertarian International Organization @ ….

  • November 26, 2012 at 7:35 am

    “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.”

    Ironically that sort of technologically progressive “space age” ended 40 years ago with the last Apollo mission to the moon.

    It must suck for still-living science fiction writers born in the 1930’s and 1940’s, like Niven, Pournelle, Bova, Benford and Vinge, who grew up reading Heinlein, Asimov & Clarke, witnessed the moon landings in the 1960’s, and started their literary careers decades ago on the premise that we had entered a new era based on moving people off the planet. Now, in our mysterious, far-future 2012, they realize that the “space age” they had pinned their hopes and dreams on failed a couple of generations ago.

  • November 26, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Thank you. I don’t know if you are right, but any theory that explains Heinlein’s later work is welcome.

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  • November 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    I think you need to read “Grumbles from the Grave” again.

  • November 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I’ve one problem concerning “Citizen of the Galaxy”: It is such a straightforward parody of Kipling’s “Kim” in its early chapters, that it must be seen as a fulcrum where the madcap ride into self-parody is concerned.

  • November 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Consider: Bob Heinlein actually was a Libertarian. “Stranger in a Strange Land” came out after he read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” “Stranger in a Strange Land” also was published 9 years after the Church of Scientology was founded – by another science fiction author.

    I believe RAH knew and made use of parody as a teaching tool. Parody and other forms of humor are often the best way to transmit serious lessons about the human condition – especially politics, religion, and sex. I am fairly certain he also figured out that “science fiction” is not a genre – it is a setting. There is no such thing as a “pure” science fiction story – they are all “mystery,” “adventure,” “thriller,” “drama,” “comedy,” etc (or some combination of genres).

  • November 26, 2012 at 4:30 pm

    Almost spot on Gary, and I’d only amend it by saying it has been my theory that after his earlier successes RAH didn’t feel the need to bow to any editor and wrote whatever the hell he wanted, with his critics upset that he was not content to work in the same vernacular as before. Publishers also knew whatever had the Heinlein name on it would sell so they stopped editing him.

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  • November 26, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    I like your two-period theory of Heinlein’s work. But based on the evidence you offer, I’m not sure I’d describe the second period as intentional satires on science fiction. In your description of the second period, I would tend to emphasize the following: Heinlein was always concerned with the bottom line; Heinlein watched Hubbard grow rich; the character of the sagebrush sage named Robert A. Heinlein becomes increasingly prominent. In my reading of his later work, instead of writing satires, he was simply writing to make money, and he learned that people would buy books that purported to be science fiction novels but which increasingly promoted a Randian political agenda and loose social views.

    The analogy with Scientology is very good indeed. But as with L. Ron Hubbard, it becomes difficult to know at what point the whole venture changed from tongue-in-cheek to deadly serious. I tend to think that as time went on, Heinlein really believed the political and social views he put into the novels; i.e., he drank his own Kool-Aid. Which would mean the novels weren’t satires, they were serious. Which is kind of sad.

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  • November 27, 2012 at 2:09 am

    your astute line: “jokes without punchlines” reminded me of some recent scholarship on the Book of Revelations that holds the letters were written as coded political commentary/news but, in the hands of highly conservative readers, has been mistaken for literal prophecy. more on that here:

    also, i wish this essay were longer. thanks!

  • November 27, 2012 at 5:12 am

    Interesting essay, that does explain much of the latter-day Heinlein work…but “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” seems serious enough in tone to not quite fit the theory. (The theory does fit some of Heinlein’s 1950s “adult” novels, like “Double Star” and “The Door into Summer,” which seem in many ways precursors to the later, longer novels…)

    Also…I gather that “Stranger in a Strange Land” was something Heinlein wrote, on and off, from 1950 to its publication, from an outline prepared at the start and followed closely. Does that mean that it bears signs of being more serious at points earlier on? (Perhaps that’s why I’m not as fond of it as others seem to be…its “enlarged [[posthumous] edition” seemed a smoother read than the original).

  • November 27, 2012 at 6:52 am

    You might want to consider that a wave of celebrities, writers and intellectuals got dosed with then new and legal LSD 25 around that time…

  • November 27, 2012 at 12:28 pm

    In response to Gary Westfahl’s thoughtful treatise – The Joke Is on Us: The Two Careers of Robert A. Heinlein – while it’s impossible to really know the thoughts and motivations of an author, such speculations are curiously thought provoking. I would like to offer Gary friendly thanks for his insight and offer a simpler explanation of Heinlein’s work.
    Robert was a scientific and mathematical genius. In terms of technology, he invented quite a number of things that have since come into production, including the water bed and cell phones, and foresaw and successfully depicted a lot of space-related devices and applications. Such technology was the basis for the science in his science fiction, and I applaud his visionary foresight. Heinlein placed these innovations in delightful and exceptionally well-written stories.
    However, there was a deeper and somewhat darker side of Mr. Heinlein that might best be characterized as socially prophetic. He was a dedicated student of human nature and social evolution, which expanded to the point he needed novel length space to describe it. He imagined in the fifties the social chaos he described as ‘The Crazy Years’, which began in the 1960s and continues to this day. He watched the moral, ethical, religious and governmental decline of the world, declaring that the U.S. would fall as a nation… with tragic results. That prophecy – for lack of a better term – is, in fact, upon us.
    Although I love his writing, some might declare him a sexual deviant, and I’m not comfortable with his depiction of incest as a socially acceptable behavior. But that, too, has come to pass, as Japanese ‘cable entertainment’ has game shows where contestants claiming to be actual families publicly engage in sexual intercourse between family members to win prizes.
    No, I think Robert’s keen view of mankind saw things he didn’t like of the broken human nature, and within the confines of his genre, he rather gently waved the red flag of warning while there was still blood in his veins and ink in his pen. As difficult as it is to be so openly aware of the danger of changing social values, perhaps we should all be so far-sighted and bold.

    Ivis Bo Davis
    Author, Xterra Conspiracy and Xterra Escape

  • November 27, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Out of curiosity, is the “broad impact on the genre” of Heinlein’s work felt much outside of the US? A lot of his work has a US Depression era mix of folksiness and attitude (“I’m a hard-headed realist, unlike all those fuzzy-headed New Dealers”), kind of the opposite pole from Ray Bradbury’s Depression era romanticism. It’s hard to see that having much appeal outside the US, but who knows. For that matter, it’s hard to see it having more than a very limited appeal inside the US after around the early 1970s, but apparently it still is pretty popular here. Heinlein wrote some enjoyable novels and short stories, like Asimov and Clarke, but they’ve been outclassed by the best of the writers in succeeding generations.

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  • November 29, 2012 at 5:23 am

    @Paul – surely you must realize that “outclassed” is entirely subjective in multiple ways: outclassed in imagination? Originality? Impact on society? Number of books published? Number of books sold? Writing style? Craftmanship? (And for the record, I don’t agree with your assessment on any of the above. There are some fine writers working today and much of their work is built on the foundation laid down by those you think outclasses.)

    Gary – this was an interesting read and a provocative theory, but I ‘sense’ one possible flaw: you wrote – “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.”

    You suggest that when readers failed to get the joke, Heinlein ratcheted up open the satire. But if your theory holds true, then what Heinlein was actually doing was “hoping to get caught”. If he had gotten called out, it certainly wouldn’t have been good for his bottom line, a sacrosanct subject. Your theory would then seem to suggest that RAH was not aware that he was engaging in potentially self-destructive behavior. So either he wasn’t consciously satirizing, or he wasn’t satirizing as your piece suggests. OR – he was consciously satirizing, HOPING that he would get called out so that he could stop writing in a field he’d obviously become disenchanted with and his fans let him down. Somehow I just don’t feel comfortable with any of those scenarios.

  • November 29, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I think this is quite a shabby piece of scholarship.

    a) ‘He was being ironic’ is neither an interpretation nor a theory… it’s an apology.

    b) You’re issuing an apology for a man who clearly thought that society was a little too oppressive when it came to child abuse.

    Given what is now known about the Catholic Church, the BBC and a number of other institutions’ tendency to look the other way when people started doing stuff to kids and this summer’s netstorm over the attempt by some elements at Readercon to soft-pedal the response to a fan’s sexual harassment of an author, I don’t think that serious genre criticism should be in the business of lazily saying “I’m sure he was kidding” when a respected member of the field writes a book about how it’s okay to fuck an 11-year old girl.

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  • December 2, 2012 at 4:34 pm

    “Out of curiosity, is the “broad impact on the genre” of Heinlein’s work felt much outside of the US? ”

    No. The belief in Heinlein’s supremacy appears to be very much an American perspective. From a global perspective, the two most famous SF authors of all time are H.G. Wells (‘The War of the Worlds’ remains highly-read and relevant, with a recent major film adaptation keeping it in the public mind) and Arthur C. Clarke. The latter has a slight caveat, in that Clarke’s fame mostly stems from 2001: A Space Odyssey which is no longer as widely watched by young SF fans as it was even a decade or two ago, but it still remains one of the most famous works of SF ever produced (in terms of public perception, way more famous and influential than any work of Heinlein’s). However, Clarke’s overall impact is secure due to his real-life science work in radar and publishing research that led directly to the creation of geostationary satelliters and asteroid-detection programmes.

    From the UK perspective, little of Heinlein’s work remains in print (I believe Stranger, Moon and Starship Troopers are his only works currently available) and his influence seems to be, at best, no greater than Clarke, Herbert, Asimov or Dick (all of whom I would argue are better-known here in the UK than Heinlein) and from a populist viewpoint he’d only be recognised in conjunction with the Verhoeven Troopers film. And given that was 15 years ago, even that’s going to be a bit tenuous.

    An important author in the history of the genre, certainly, but his modern-day influence and impact is fairly minimal outside of the United States, and I don’t think that prevalent any more within it.

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  • December 3, 2012 at 9:13 am

    Seems to be making the argument that if one descends into self-parody by choice, rather than due to a dearth of ideas, that this should be embraced as a relevant form of creativity. Thing is, ultimately, the intent of the author is nearly meaningless next to the effect experienced by the reader. Even if one acknowledges satiric intent on the part of Heinlein, it should be equally acknowledged that the execution of said satire has resulted in a negative reaction by many readers — and not just critics.
    When the defense against “This is crap, he must’ve lost his mind!”
    is “Oh no, he KNEW what he was doing,” one might wonder if that apologia makes the author and his work look better or worse.
    [Having said that, I’d like to note that I liked Farnham’s Freehold (at least I did when I read it at age 14) Podkayne of Mars (the only novel other than The Hobbit that I’ve read three times) TMIAHM and Job: A Comedy of Justice.]

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  • October 17, 2017 at 8:18 pm

    Problem = I don’t see how the “Future History” novels of the 50s – Revolt in 2100 and Methuselah’s Children – fit the scheme. These are most definitely not juvenile novels and show an appreciation of the role of religion in populism that resonates today. The way Lazarus Long evolved as a character does fit, but nothing else does.

    It is too bad Heinlein didn’t finish the “Future History” series. As he says in Revolt, he simply couldn’t bring himself to write The Sound of His Wings and the sequels because he found Nehemiah Scudder so repugnant as a character. These books would have been seen as truly prophetic (no pun intended) today.

    I left out For Us, The Living on purpose since it wasn’t published in Heinlein’s lifetime, but it also doesn’t fit. Would anyone who was largely consumed by space operas write that book? I doubt it.

    I think what happened was that Heinlein found that writing the juvenile books paid off, big time. He always had his eye on the main chance when it came to earning a living and I think he took the rejection of For Us, The Living as a signal that there weren’t readers for his more serious work. But here I’m speculating.

  • February 13, 2018 at 6:54 pm

    Given that Heinlein was a huge fan of James Branch Cabell, it is not surprising that when he could finally write to suit himself, he wrote a kind of ironic satire fantasy similar to that Cabell had written. Perhaps ‘Glory Road’ best foreshadowed this; it satirizes the traditional hero–and fantasy hero specifically–from start to finish. What DOES a retired hero DO? He becomes an ornament, reversing the traditional fantasy role of the rescued Princess, who marries with stars in her eyes and has babies and never does another noteworthy thing, not even designing bad jewelry. Lovely irony and satire, just lovely.

    It took me years to truly enjoy the late ‘Middle’ Heinlein and ‘Late’ Heinlein; I desperately wanted them to be more of his early work, say, through “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’. (To this day cannot reread “I Will Fear No Evil’–Nembutal with a side of opium is an upper in comparison).

    I have not tried Cabell for nearly half a century, but your essay makes me think I should give him another try. Perhaps I was simply to unsophisticated to appreciate him earlier; certainly I was too unsophisticated and inexperienced to appreciate Heinlein post-‘Moon’ until my late forties.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece.


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