Saturday, July 7, 2007


Today would have been Robert A. Heinlein's 100th birthday, had he been as immortal as some of his characters.

It's no secret that, unlike some Heinlein fans I could name, I don't believe the man could do no wrong. He was too complex for that, and I strongly disagree with some of the things he said and wrote. I detest Farnham's Freehold and The Day After Tomorrow, was bored by I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough For Love, and haven't even attempted to read The Number of the Beast or To Sail Beyond the Sunset (though I have recently been ploughing through his early attempt at a novel For Us, The Living, an intriguing if plotless diatribe written after his unsuccessful attempt to enter politics as a polyamorous nudist supporter of Upton Sinclair's EPIC. No, I'm not joking).

That said, if he'd written nothing but 'All You Zombies', 'The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag', and 'The Man Who Traveled in Elephants', he would still (IMHO) be deserving of his Grand Master status. And as well as these gems, he also gave us 'The Long Watch', 'The Green Hills of Earth', 'The Man Who Sold the Moon', 'Requiem', Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Between Planets, Glory Road, and many other works that I've enjoyed reading and re-reading. While I'm no fan of Starship Troopers, I acknowledge its importance to the genre, if only for the "responses" and outright piss-takes it has inspired and which I have enjoyed.

His influence on the sf writing community has been immeasurable: to cite just one example, I am pleased and grateful his philosophy that the sf writers who he helped out in times of crisis (and there were many of them, some of whom disagreed fervently with his politics at the time), should not pay back these favours but "pay them forward", has been adopted by many others in the field.

Take him for all in all, the world would be a much poorer place had he never lived, and I can think of no higher praise for anyone.

1 comment:

William H. Stoddard said...

I've run into a lot of people who dislike Farnham's Freehold, and it seems many of them do so because they read it as a racist work. But I believe that's a misreading. I find it more plausible that Farnham's Freehold was addressed to white readers who held racist ideas, seeming to share those ideas, as a way of subverting them.

Remember, Heinlein was a mathematician by training; "without loss of generality" is one of the most basic concepts in a mathematician's mental repertoire. If you make the case that racial oppression of white people by black people is wrong, then arguing without loss of generality leads to the conclusions that racial oppression of black people by white people is wrong.

Item: Heinlein shows clearly that a black American character, Joseph the houseboy, whom he presents sympathetically, feels wronged by American racism: "Did you ever make a bus trip through Alabama? As a 'nigger'? Then shut up."

Item: The novel's hero treats the two as morally equivalent: When his new wife asks him how many white men would have exercised power as humanely as their former black master did, he says, in effect, "I didn't do as well when I had power."

Item: Heinlein also makes the case that racial categories are socially constructed and not natural (in the story of the southern segregationist senator who turned out to be predominantly black by ancestry, and in the future society's defining South Asians as "black"), that the implications drawn from them are not what people suppose (in the story of the area where cultured plantations owners were black and shiftless field hands were white), and that in any case few people want accurate scientific knowledge about human racial differences.

None of this is an endorsement of the beliefs of American racists of the time. It may have been an error of judgment, both in that it overestimated the ability of racist readers to notice that Heinlein was trying to undermine their beliefs and attitudes through a kind of "proof by contradiction," and in that it led later nonracist readers to imagine that Heinlein was a white racist, a view that reading his other fiction does not support. But on the other hand, Heinlein deserves to be read with more care to see what he was actually saying.