Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Write Stuff

It was Robert Heinlein's birthday earlier this week, and by chance that was the day I finished William H. Patterson's Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, Vol. 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, the second volume of his biography.

Patterson--who died earlier this year--was maybe not the man for the job. His writing is generally dry as he never fully brings Heinlein to life. (He also sometimes interjects his own politics into the proceedings.) But there aren't that many other biographical writings on Heinlein out there, not at this length anyway, so this will have to do. And really, for all its failings, it gets the facts across.

The first volume dealt, of course, with the years before Heinlein was a leading name in science fiction. In fact, he didn't start writing sf for a living until he was in his 30s--very late in a field filled with nerdy teens who couldn't wait to get published. So Heinlein, who hadn't seen himself as a writer, and had plenty of real-life experience, began as a mature man with a rare talent for well-told tales with solid scientific backing.  He quickly rose to the top of his field, then took some time off for WWII.

The latest volume starts in 1948, a few years after the War.  The big difference, and probably the most significant change in Heinlein's life, is he's left behind his wife, Leslyn--now a hopeless alcoholic spreading malicious lies about Robert--and he's about to marry Virginia, who'd be with him the rest of his life.

By now Heinlein was an established author, and one of the first in SF to be published in slicks, not just pulps. He still needed more money, with a new wife, a new house in Colorado, and some fallow years during the War.  At the beginning of this volume he's moving from short stories to novels, and he's starting his series of juveniles--about one a year through the 50s.  He wrote them pretty quickly--generally the first drafts were done in less then a month.  But then he had to deal with the censorship of the time, and editors with whom he didn't see eye to eye, so each book was a struggle.

He also wrotes the movie Destination Moon, that came out in 1950.  Heinlein, in fact, regularly got involved in moves and TV shows, but almost all fell apart after Moon--for all the censorship and editing he had to deal with in publishing, at least on the page he was the master, whereas in show biz he was just a cog in a machine filled with people who believed they could improve his product through significant changes. (One bit of success, if not precisely his, was Star Trek's Tribbles--creatures clearly taken from Heinlein's Flat Cats in his novel The Rolling Stones. The people at ST recognized this and Heinlein was gracious enough to sign a release.)

He also started writing adult novels, including such delights in the 1950s as The Puppet Masters, Double Star (which won his first of four Hugo Awards) and The Door Into Summer.  But it was at the end of the decade when he'd put out a novel that got more attention than anything else he'd done--Starship Troopers.

It's one of his last juveniles, but he really wrote it for anyone. The Earth is in a war with bugs from another planet, but what's surprising about the book is how little action there is. (Some was added at the end at the suggestion on his publisher.) Because Heinlein is interested here in getting across certain ideas, and he illustrates them by having a naive boy go through basic training and then officer training (another idea that he added along the way) to teach him what it means to fight for those you love.

The novel, which won his second Hugo, is still selling today, but was highly controversial.  Still is, in fact. This future Earth of Heinlein's is a place where you only get to vote after you've done years of official public service (shown in the novel almost exclusively as military service).  Some have called it fascist, which seems to miss the point. Heinlein, agree with him or not (and we shouldn't confuse him with his characters, either), seems to be saying in ST that the franchise should be something you earn--that until you've served, voluntarily, you don't understand what society truly means.

Next, in the early 1960s, he decided to write whatever he wanted, no censoring himself (though he'd still cut severely for commercial reasons).  And his next book, which he'd been thinking about for over a decade, was also a Hugo winner--Stranger In A Strange Land. This is about a human raised by the advanced Martian race who comes back to Earth and forms a new religion.  The book featured free love and the development of amazing mental powers.  It became one of those works ubiquitous on college campuses throughout the 60s and beyond.  It still sells well today, and is his most famous work. (So far there's been no movie version, but people keep trying.)  Heinlein, improbably, became a guru--something he'd probably rather have avoided.

Then, in the mid-60s, came his last Hugo Winner, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, about humans living on the Moon who launch a revolution against Earth.  Some see it as a libertarian manifesto, and while the text can support that, it's too simple to merely read it as a direct reflection of Heinlein's personal politics.

Much of Patterson's biography, in fact, deals with Heinlein's politics.  In his early days it would have been easy to describe his stance as socialist progressive, but in his later years he's often been seen as a conservative, even a reactionary.  This is unfair.  What he was, was a liberal--even though the meaning of that word has changed considerably since Heinlein's youth.  From teh start he believed that people should be free to do what they want as long as they don't hurt each other.  And as he traveled more around the world with Ginny, he started to see how big government, even when run by well-meaning people, got in the way. (He and his wife also took a trip through the Soviet Union. Heinlein never had much use for Communism, but if there were any doubts before, seeing it up close reminded him of what a horror it was.)

Heinlein was also a strong believer in the military--which is perhaps why he's sometimes mindlessly called a fascist. The thing is, he didn't believe in a draft. As far as he was concerned, if citizens won't fight for their country, then that country doesn't deserve to exist.  And he saw Communism, especially after the Soviets started launching satellites in the 1950s, as a great threat to the world.  And so the man who campaigned for socialist Upton Sinclair for Governor of California in the 1930s was now on the side of Goldwater for President in 1964.  Heinlein would also serve on a sort of think tank/committee that argued for SDI in the Reagan years.  (He fought friend Arthur C. Clarke over a Star Wars missile defense--Clarke though Heinlein a bit too heated on the issue, but did admit his own science was faulty.)

Another thing he believed in was space flight.  He was never so excited as during the days of Apollo 11.  He was interviewed, as sort of an expert, on the meaning of his all, and he felt humanity was finally leaving its childhood and moving into maturity.  Though in later years, when the glory days of the moon shots were over, he felt America wasn't sufficiently supporting the space program.

He was also a man free of racial prejudice. In fact, some of his juveniles feature protagonists who are not white--are true rarity in those days.  Heck, sometimes they're not even male.

Heinlein was also a social man.  He was a pretty good public speaker when required. He had certain causes, not always directly political--he was a strong supporter of blood drives, for instance.  He also went to sf conventions where he would hold court in his hotel suite. And while some have grumbled he could be gruff, from the evidence Patterson presents, Heinlein was a very generous man, with both time and money. He gave handouts to some friends to keep them going during tough times, gave free story ideas to Theodore Sturgeon and helped get Jerry Pournelle's career going, among other things.

He and his wife also seemed to take sick quite often--it seems that half the time they were married at least one of the was seriously ill.  Ginny was feeling poorly for years until doctors figured she had anoxia and needed to move closer to sea level--so the couple left the home they'd carefully built in Colorado and moved to Santa Cruz, California.  Where they built another home according to their specs--it was round, for instance, and had bathroom doors that opened to the outside so they could come in directly from swimming without tracking in water.

Then came 1970. Heinlein grew very ill and, due to a misdiagnosis, was near death.  He underwent an operation that removed quite a bit of his colon and intestines to get rid of an infection, and then spent most of the year recuperating--while being hit with other illnesses, such as shingles.

In his later years, Heinlein didn't churn them out like he used to--his political work, his non-fiction work, his social life and his illnesses got in the way.  Of course, there was a time he had to write for the income--by the 1970s his royalties were so huge that he could have retired.  But he kept at it.  Some love his later writing, but in some cases, now that he was a bestseller and could do what he wanted, he got a little wordy and self-indulgent.  I'm not a big fan of 1970s novels like I Will Fear No Evil and Time Enough For Love, though at least he was trying new things. That was always part of the secret to his success.  He didn't just churn out formula, but would strike out for new territory.  His last novels, in the 1980s, were enjoyable if not quite up to his earlier work--stuff like Friday and Job: A Comedy Of Justice.

While I heaven't read his books in a while, I did reread many of his titles when I was an adult and thought they held up a lot better than so much other sf I'd read.  Is he a classic?  We'll see.  But you could do a lot worse.  And Patterson's book also shows a man who could be tough, but also seems like someone I wish I'd known.

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