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Locus Magazine
Heinlein at 100: A Roundtable Discussion
Photo by Amelia Beamer

Wikipedia: Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein Society

This discussion took place during Readercon 2007 on July 6 and 7, among John Clute, Gary K. Wolfe, Graham Sleight, and Charles N. Brown, with help from Locus editor Amelia Beamer. Following on the success of the discussion on horror in our May issue, we've combined a public discussion (part of the Readercon programming) with a private discussion, making one continuous narrative. Our critics hardly need introductions: John Clute is a science fiction critic and encyclopedist; Gary K. Wolfe is a professor, critic, and Locus reviewer, Charles N. Brown is the publisher of Locus, and Graham Sleight is a critic, Locus reviewer, and the incoming editor of Foundation. The discussion takes off from Graham Sleight's Yesterday's Tomorrows column on Heinlein.

Excerpts from the discussion:

CNB: I want to open with a conclusion we all seem to share: all modern science fiction is based on Heinlein. He's the elephant in the room. It doesn't matter if anyone's reading him now; he set the course of modern science fiction.

GKW: I don't think he's the elephant in the room so much as the room around the elephant. He's the person who invented the language of modern SF. Look at SF and fantasy -- in terms of genre history -- as a housing development: Some people build frames and platforms, and other people build on those platforms. You can go back to earlier platforms such as the Gernsbackian technology tale, or even the utopian tale, which I see as kind of a gray facade without many features. But the platform modern science fiction is built on is essentially what Heinlein gave us in the early '40s, so he's the room we're in.

JC: I agree. We don't even know we're reading Heinlein because traditional and contemporary science fiction is so imbued with Heinlein he's invisible. His influence was pervasive and authoritative, and so unanswerable that it became the way we talked. Then there's the drama of his career and writing and life, far more telling than, say, Jack Williamson, whose life in a biological sense encompasses the entire field and whose death marked a symbolic terminus. Heinlein's creation of modern science fiction was a venture into the various ways it could be told, various markets it could be told in, and then we had to witness his gradual disillusionment and departure from a field that he'd created for advocacy and that could no longer advocate what he wished because the world didn't go that way.

GS: Writing my piece for this issue of Locus was odd and very difficult. The responses to Heinlein are so polarized. Either he's a fascist, and we hate him for that reason, or he's the founder of many of the virtues we adhere to, and anyone who says otherwise just doesn't get him. There's also the sense of personalization of response. Many people who've read Heinlein and like him couch themselves as -- one of the subtitles of the Heinlein Centennial that's going on this weekend -- Heinlein's Children. People who read Heinlein and get him have such a personal response.

AB: In terms of the elephant in the room, and the room around the elephant: it's not only that, it's the operating system by which science fiction is read and written.


GKW: Heinlein sold the reader on a very convincing future: it was lived-in; it was achievable; you could understand how it worked. In order to be in this cool future he invented, we had to listen to him talk to us. Eventually the talking overcame the future; there's nothing very interesting about the future in his later novels. There was no framework on which to hang the ideas; the ideas just hung.

JC: He thought by 1959 his influence was starting to wane for all sorts of reasons; one of them being that the course of history was not the course of enablement that he'd thought was appropriate. I think he thought that the contract he'd enforced upon himself had been broken by the field itself. The last novels, certainly from 1970 on, are novels that are repudiations of the whole world that he'd created over the years of his commercial success. History broke its contract with Heinlein, so he had nothing to talk about but exfoliations of Heinlein in those later stories. It wasn't solipsism; it was filling up the void history had left. His eventual departure from the field came through these interminable iterations of departure, disillusionment, and of real hatred; a kind of death long before he actually died. It's an astonishing representation of part of our model of SF itself.

GKW: In his 1957 University of Chicago lecture he said, as the writer, you have a contract with the reader to place the reader in this universe, but if you have to stop the narrative in order to explain what the universe is, you've violated that contract.

From a writing point of view, that's Heinlein as a set of techniques, what Amelia told us is called "Heinleining" in SF writers' workshops. That is something you need to do in an SF story, something you usually don't need in a non-science fiction story, and something you might do historical fiction. Bruce Sterling was one of those writers who internalized Heinlein at a very early age. You look at a Sterling story, say "The Blemmye's Stratagem" (set in North Africa in the 12th century), and it's technically developed like a Heinlein story. He puts you into this universe, but he doesn't explain anything about it. Also Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Sidon books: Gene Wolfe has internalized Heinlein to the extent that when he sets out to write a historical fantasy, he introduces the setting in the way Heinlein would have. What Gene did, particularly in Shadow of the Torturer, was to take the Jack Vance future and "Heinlein" it -- in effect, providing the archaeology that enables you to see how this radically alienated future came about. Which makes Gene Wolfe the bastard son of Heinlein and Jack Vance. And Damon Knight was the midwife.


GS: The distinguishing thing about Heinlein is this axiom that the universe can be made sense of, that there is one set of answers to the questions we have, and someone who's smart enough and works hard enough can get somewhere by using those answers. Ultimately, this is philosophically a positivist point of view, as opposed to, say, modernism or postmodernism, in which there are no answers or multiple answers. You can see the latter point of view in someone like Gibson, with the idea that there may well be answers on how to manipulate the world of cyberspace, accessible to people with power and money, but we're not concerned with them. And certainly, in the world of slipstream, say, there are no answers at all; there's no way out of the maze. One of the clearest divides to me in modern science fiction is between people who adhere to some form of that positivist doctrine, that you can find answers, and those who don't.

GKW: You're describing an engineer's view of the world, essentially. Heinlein was a pioneer of engineering fiction. There's remarkably little science in his writing at all -- there are a lot of clever devices and stalwart engineers solving problems in society, building the future he wanted to build, but they're not speculatively adventurous. One example of how these don't work in the modern world is the various efforts within the last 20 years to resurrect the Heinlein juveniles. Heinlein juveniles worked amazingly well for their period, but you look at the attempt of reviving these on the part of Jerry Pournelle and Charles Sheffield, and they're basically awful. They don't address reality as perceived by young people today.


CNB: Heinlein was subversive. He talked about how he wrote Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land at the same time and kept moving scenes from one to the other, where they would fit better. The two books are interchangeable, two sides of the argument about freedom. When Heinlein had to go into the hospital for surgery, his wife, Virginia, had I Will Fear No Evil published even though Heinlein wanted to cut it more. It's the only Heinlein book he ever talked about. He told me, "If I hadn't gotten sick, I'd have rewritten the book, and what makes you think the protagonist survived the first operation?" His argument was that it wasn't a science fiction book; it was "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce (1890). The lead character dies in the first scene, and none of the brain transplants ever happen.

GS: The author is absolutely the last person to believe. The word I tend to use for what people like Heinlein do is deniability. You get extreme material presented, but in a way where the author has enough elbow room to say, "Actually, I don't believe it, and you were a fool for thinking I might." At the same time, it certainly looks like this is very close to the voice of the author. With Heinlein there's a sufficient amount of biographical and political stuff outside of the novels that one can start to triangulate him, and the fiction, and the political views expressed outside the fiction.

JC: Maybe the most negative thing that I'd say about Heinlein is that after being bullied by bent syllogisms that demonstrate things I don't believe, the author says, "You mean you believed that? You went through all this ugliness believing that I meant it?" Well, he did mean it; he wrote it! I don't think anyone will ever convince me that you can read a Heinlein novel without having at one point been, as it were, stunned into a belief that you did not wish to hold, and you felt you'd been euchred by it. Someone like David Brin does it all the time. If he asks you a question, you know your answer will be to a punishing conclusion about your lack of understanding. That is pure Heinlein.

GS: He'll be one of those authors remembered in bits and pieces. Heinlein said that the three core books are Moon, Stranger, and Starship Troopers, and a fit reader would see that they represent one consistent worldview; all of them about freedom and responsibility. To which there are several responses, the first being, as I said, that taking an author's estimation of his own work is the last thing any reader should do.

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