Friday, November 27, 2020

SF Luminaries: Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988)

Robert Heinlein was one of the first Science Fiction writers I ever read. Probably this was a result of the fact that my father had snaffled an old wire display rack from the throw-out pile outside a local shop, and used it as a repository for most of his old paperbacks.

Robert Heinlein: The Green Hills of Earth (1951)

This awkward object, known to us all as 'the squeaker' from the awful noise it made when you rotated it to make your selection, contained such gems as the two Pan Books editions of M. R. James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, as well as the even more garish covers of my father's SF collection.

Don't you just love that sleek-looking spaceship above, speeding rapidly past the Moon to 'rest [its] eyes / on the fleecy skies / and the cool green hills of Earth'?

I have to say that I wasn't quite so keen on the look of its companion volume, The Man Who Sold the Moon, but the stories inside were every bit as good, and - what's more - introduced me to the basic concept of Heinlein's 'future history' series, a set of linked stories which added up to an extraordinarily coherent vision of the future.

Robert Heinlein: The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)

Subsequently all - or almost all - of those stories would be collected in the compendium The Past Through Tomorrow, but there was always just enough bibliographical overlap to make it necessary to hang on to the original editions as well.

Robert Heinlein: The Past Through Tomorrow (1967)

Those stories were good. I liked them very much. They had a strong American can-do tone to them which contrasted nicely with those of Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham, my other two Sci-fi heroes of the time. The pieces of verse shoehorned in here and there were, however, rather more reminiscent of Kipling - it was plain that from an early age Heinlein aspired to be the Poet of the Spaceways, just as Kipling was of the Barrack Room.

Robert Heinlein: Farmer in the Sky (1950)

It wasn't till I started to ransack the libraries at my Intermediate School (Murrays Bay Intermediate), then my Secondary School (Rangitoto College) that I first came across the Heinlein juveniles, though. There are twelve of these in all. As you can see from the list below, they appeared yearly from Scribner's from 1947 until 1958:

  1. Rocket Ship Galileo (1947)

  2. Space Cadet (1948)

  3. Red Planet (1949)

  4. Farmer in the Sky (1950)

  5. Between Planets (1951)

  6. The Rolling Stones [aka 'Space Family Stone'] (1952)

  7. Starman Jones (1953)

  8. The Star Beast (1954)

  9. Tunnel in the Sky (1955)

  10. Time for the Stars (1956)

  11. Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

  12. Have Space Suit – Will Travel (1958)

Robert Heinlein: Tunnel in the Sky (1955)

Not all of these dozen books are masterpieces, by any means, but there's a bustling joie-de-vivre about them which make them, collectively, one of Heinlein's greatest claims on posterity.

Robert Heinlein: Space Cadet (1948)

And, in general, while much has been made of the almost accidental 'predictions' to be found here and there in his work - waterbeds in Beyond This Horizon (1942), cellphones in Space Cadet (1948), the internet itself in Friday (1982) - it's the Mark Twain-like exuberance of his invention which keeps these books readable still.

Robert Heinlein: Friday (1982)

That comparison with Mark Twain is probably more to the point than the one with Kipling. Like Twain, Heinlein was a master storyteller, a superb fictional craftsman who could bang out a yarn on virtually any topic, in any setting. Like Twain, too, he gradually disappeared behind his persona as a dispenser of cracker-barrel wisdom on a set series of topics: mostly political and religious for Twain, mostly social and sexual for Heinlein. Both grew increasingly boring and longwinded with age.

Robert Heinlein: Starship Troopers (1959)

Whether you see it as a quasi-Fascist militarist tract (like SF pundit Darko Suvin), or a subtly concealed piece of progressive racial politics (like contrarian writer and critic Samuel R. Delany), there's no doubt that Starship Troopers is a powerful piece of work. It won Heinlein the Hugo Award in 1960, and inspired an almost equally controversial film adaptation in 1997.

Paul Verhoeven, dir.: Starship Troopers (1997)

After that it was clear that Heinlein was no longer willing to confine himself to the 'juvenile' genre. Instead he started to question all the basic moral tenets of his society in a series of increasingly massive novels, starting with that bestselling mainstay of American campus life in the 1960s, Stranger in a Strange Land:

Robert Heinlein: Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)

He then moved on through a series of ever more wacky and discordant fantasies, such as I Will Fear No Evil, where an elderly billionaire has his brain transplanted into the body of a young woman, and proceeds to act out his sexual fantasies in dialogue with her soul (which has remained with the body) until their combined 'self' dies in giving birth to a baby conceived through artificial insemination with his own sperm!

Robert Heinlein: I Will Fear No Evil (1970)

That last was where I stuck, I must confess. I couldn't really face the prospect of any more meganovels of that sort, so - while I continued to collect them in a desultory fashion - I didn't read any more of them after that. Also, I found the self-righteous authoritarianism of such novels as Farnham's Freehold (1965), in particular, abhorrent - but then The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which came after it, was a thoroughly beguiling read. Go figure!

Robert Heinlein: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966)

Recently, perhaps as a result of my decade of work on New Zealand Science Fiction (now embodied in my NZSF website), I've started to reconsider my views on the classic SF writers of my youth. I've been rereading Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Frank Herbert, and a number of others, and it suddenly occurred to me that it had been an awfully long time since I'd even opened the cover of one of Heinlein's books.

And yet it's increasingly difficult to ignore how much all of these luminaries - not to mention us readers - owe to him and his work. Way back in the forties, long before the Lord of the Rings and the Epic Fantasy book, Heinlein was already blending Fantasy and Science Fiction in such works as 'Magic, Inc.' (1950), and it was then that he coined that perennially useful term 'Speculative Fiction.'

Once before I decided to read all of a particular SF writer's works from beginning to end. It was Philip K. Dick that time, and it took me quite some time to read his 40-odd novels and five volumes of collected stories in sequence.

It was extremely informative, though. I'd always thought of Dick as a pulp novelist who constantly recycled the same themes and ideas in a slightly different form in his fiction. Reading all those garish paperbacks in one long serried rank of weirdness showed me just how very distinct each one of them was, however. What I'd seen as repetition and revisiting of the same themes stemmed mainly from Dick's habit of compiling novels out of previously published short stories and novellas.

The same is true of Raymond Chandler, Heinlein himself, and, indeed, most of the pulp-writers of the immediately pre- and post-war era, who sold their work for a pittance and had to make it do double-duty if they could. Read one after another, Dick's novels fell into place as a marvellously varied - and not at all repetitive - Human Comedy of the future.

I wondered if it would be possible to repeat this same experiment with Robert Heinlein?

Robert A. Heinlein: Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984)

Which is where I paused, well over a month ago. Since then I've been rereading all my old paperback Heinlein novels and short story collections, in as strict a chronological order as I can manage, together with some new ones added for the occasion.

These last included Job: A Comedy of Justice, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (1985), and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, which I bought as a group, in their original hardback editions, on one splendid day in Ponsonby!

My conclusions remain mixed. I haven't come out of this experience as a complete fan, by any means, but it's true that many of his storytelling virtues remained right up to the end. My own feeling is that the multiverse, which gradually began to swallow up all of his old lines of narrative with the gargantuan Lazarus Long saga Time Enough For Love (1973), and became even more exacerbated with the idea of the actual existence of fictional timelines in 'The Number of the Beast' (1980), led him into some very sloppy and repetitive ways latterly. Everyone seems to be involved in multiple marriages, and vaguely salacious banter, almost all of the time, and the few scenes of action stand out like poignant reminders of what he once stood for.

Robert A. Heinlein: The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985)

Job begins well, but starts to fall apart halfway through. The same is true of the intriguingly titled The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. It starts off with a hiss and a roar, but then disappears into the depressing region known as Lazarus-Long-land. Reading them in order, as I've done, does have the advantage of enabling me to work out who's who - more or less - in these increasingly entangled scenarios, but doesn't necessarily make them any more enjoyable.

My tentative conclusion, then (I haven't yet read any of the posthumously published novels, and I'm not sure if I will: they do sound a little peripheral to the main thrust of his work) is that Heinlein is a far better and more interesting writer than I've thought him to be for the past couple of decades. His 'sex-romp' proclivities have not aged well, however, and - in general - the later work, with a few splendid exceptions such as The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Glory Road, is not up to the standard of his pulp-era writing.

He definitely repays rereading, but one needs a strong stomach at times. His politics may not seem to me now quite as reprehensible as they did a few years ago, but the irrepressible demagogue in him was possibly his greatest handicap as a writer. To paraphrase Caxton's preface to the Morte d'Arthur:
for to pass the time these books shall be pleasant to read in; but for to give faith and believe that all is true that is contained herein, ye be at your liberty ...

Robert A. Heinlein: To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)

Farah Mendelsohn: The Pleasant Profession of Robert Heinlein (2019)

Robert Anson Heinlein


  1. Beyond This Horizon. 1948. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1978.
  2. The Day After Tomorrow [aka 'Sixth Column']. 1949. Mayflower Science Fiction. London: Mayflower Books, 1962.
  3. A Heinlein Triad: The Puppet Masters; Waldo; Magic, Inc. 1951 & 1950. Gollancz SF. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., n.d. [c. 1965].
  4. Double Star. 1956. Panther Science Fiction. London: Panther Books Ltd., 1968.
  5. The Door into Summer. 1957. A Signet Book. New York: New American Library, 1957.
  6. Methuselah's Children. [Expanded version of a 1941 novella]. 1958. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1971.
  7. Starship Troopers. 1959. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1977.
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land. 1961. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1977.
    • Stranger in a Strange Land: The Science Fiction Classic Uncut. 1961. Rev. ed. 1991. Hodder Great Reads. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2005.
  9. Podkayne of Mars. 1963. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1978.
  10. Orphans of the Sky. [Expanded version of the stories 'Universe' & 'Common Sense', 1941]. 1963. A Mayflower Science Fiction Classic. London: Mayflower Books, 1969.
  11. Glory Road. 1963. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1980.
  12. Farnham's Freehold. 1965. a Berkley Medallion Book. New York: Berkley Publishing Corporation, 1972.
  13. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. 1966. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1969.
  14. I Will Fear No Evil. 1970. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1979.
  15. Time Enough for Love. 1973. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1977.
  16. ‘The Number of the Beast’. 1980. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1981.
  17. Friday. 1982. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1983.
  18. Job: A Comedy of Justice. 1984. London: New English Library, 1984.
  19. The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners. 1985. London: New English Library, 1986.
  20. To Sail Beyond the Sunset: The Life and Loves of Maureen Johnson (Being the Memoirs of a Somewhat Irregular Lady). An Ace / Putnam Book. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1987.

  21. SF Juveniles:

  22. Rocket Ship Galileo. 1947. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1980.
  23. Space Cadet. 1948. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1977.
  24. Red Planet. 1949. Pan Science Fiction. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1967.
  25. Farmer in the Sky. 1950. Illustrated by Clifford Geary. 1962. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1967.
  26. Between Planets. 1951. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1977.
  27. Space Family Stone. [aka 'The Rolling Stones,']. 1952. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1973.
  28. Starman Jones. 1953. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, n.d.
  29. The Star Beast. 1954. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1972.
  30. Tunnel in the Sky. 1955. Pan Science Fiction. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973.
  31. Time for the Stars. 1956. Pan Science Fiction. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1973.
  32. Citizen of the Galaxy. 1957. A Peacock Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
  33. Have Space Suit – Will Travel. 1958. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1978.

  34. Short Stories:

  35. The Man Who Sold the Moon. Introduction by John W. Campbell, Jr. 1950. London: Pan Books, 1955.
    1. Let There Be Light (1940)
    2. The Roads Must Roll (1940)
    3. The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
    4. Requiem (1940)
    5. Life-Line (1939)
    6. Blowups Happen (1940)
  36. The Green Hills of Earth. 1951. London: Pan Books, 1956.
    1. Delilah and the Space Rigger (1949)
    2. Space Jockey (1947)
    3. The Long Watch (1949)
    4. Gentlemen, Be Seated! (1948)
    5. The Black Pits of Luna (1948)
    6. It's Great to Be Back! (1947)
    7. — We Also Walk Dogs (1941)
    8. Ordeal in Space (1948)
    9. The Green Hills of Earth (1947)
    10. Logic of Empire (1941)
  37. Assignment in Eternity. 1953. 2 vols. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1971 & 1978.
    1. Gulf (1949)
    2. Elsewhen (1939)
    3. Lost Legacy (1939)
    4. Jerry Was a Man (1946)
  38. Revolt in 2100. 1953. London: Pan Books, 1966.
    1. If this goes on – (1940)
    2. Coventry (1940)
    3. Misfit (1939)
  39. The Menace From Earth. 1959. Corgi SF Collector’s Library. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1973.
    1. The Year of the Jackpot (1952)
    2. By His Bootstraps (1941)
    3. Columbus Was a Dope (1947)
    4. The Menace from Earth (1957)
    5. Sky Lift (1953)
    6. Goldfish Bowl (1942)
    7. Project Nightmare (1953)
    8. Water Is for Washing (1947)
  40. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag. [aka '6 X H']. 1959. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1976.
    1. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942)
    2. The Man Who Traveled in Elephants (1957)
    3. — All You Zombies — (1959)
    4. They (1941)
    5. Our Fair City (1948)
    6. '— And He Built a Crooked House —' (1941)
  41. The Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein. 1966. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1970.
    1. Free Men (1947)
    2. Blowups Happen (1940)
    3. Searchlight (1962)
    4. [Life-Line (1939)]
    5. Solution Unsatisfactory (1940)
  42. The Past Through Tomorrow. 1967. 2 vols. Times Mirror. London: New English Library, 1978 & 1979.
    1. Life-Line (1939)
    2. The Roads Must Roll (1940)
    3. Blowups Happen (1940)
    4. The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
    5. Delilah and the Space Rigger (1949)
    6. Space Jockey (1947)
    7. Requiem (1940)
    8. The Long Watch (1948)
    9. Gentlemen, Be Seated! (1948)
    10. The Black Pits of Luna (1948)
    11. 'It's Great to Be Back!' (1947)
    12. '— We Also Walk Dogs' (1941)
    13. Searchlight (1962)
    14. Ordeal in Space (1948)
    15. The Green Hills of Earth (1947)
    16. Logic of Empire (1941)
    17. The Menace From Earth (1957)
    18. 'If This Goes On —' (1940)
    19. Coventry (1940)
    20. Misfit (1939)
  43. The Best of Robert A. Heinlein. London: Sphere Books Limited, 1973.
    1. Lifeline (1939)
    2. The Roads Must Roll (1940)
    3. And He Built a Crooked House (1941)
    4. The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (1942)
    5. The Green Hills of Earth (1947)
    6. The Long Watch (1949)
    7. The Man Who Sold the Moon (1950)
    8. All You Zombies (1959)
  44. Expanded Universe (1980)
    1. Forward
    2. Life-Line (1939)
    3. Successful Operation
    4. Blowups Happen (1940)
    5. Solution Unsatisfactory (1940)
    6. The Last Days of the United States
    7. How to Be a Survivor
    8. Pie from the Sky
    9. They Do It with Mirrors
    10. Free Men (1947)
    11. No Bands Playing, No Flags Flying
    12. A Bathroom of Her Own
    13. On the Slopes of Vesuvius
    14. Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon
    15. Pandora's Box / Where To? (1950, 1965, 1980)
    16. Cliff and the Calories
    17. Ray Guns and Rocket Ships
    18. The Third Millennium Opens
    19. Who Are the Heirs of Patrick Henry?
    20. Pravda Means Truth
    21. Inside Intourist
    22. Searchlight (1962)
    23. The Pragmatics of Patriotism
    24. Paul Dirac, Antimatter, and You
    25. Larger than Life: A Memoir in Tribute to E. E. "Doc" Smith
    26. Spinoff
    27. The Happy Days Ahead

  45. Published Posthumously:

  46. For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (written 1939; published 2003)
  47. Off the Main Sequence: The Other Science Fiction Stories of Robert A. Heinlein (2005) [previously uncollected stories marked in bold]:
    1. Successful Operation (1940)
    2. Let There Be Light (1940)
    3. '— And He Built a Crooked House —' (1941)
    4. Beyond Doubt (1941)
    5. They (1941)
    6. Solution Unsatisfactory (1941)
    7. Universe (1941)
    8. Elsewhen (1941)
    9. Common Sense (1941)
    10. By His Bootstraps (1941)
    11. Lost Legacy (1941)
    12. My Object All Sublime (1942)
    13. Goldfish Bowl (1942)
    14. Pied Piper (1942)
    15. Free Men (1966)
    16. On the Slopes of Vesuvius (1980)
    17. Columbus Was a Dope (1947)
    18. Jerry Was a Man (1947)
    19. Water Is for Washing (1947)
    20. Nothing Ever Happens on the Moon (1949)
    21. Gulf (1949)
    22. Destination Moon (1950)
    23. The Year of the Jackpot (1952)
    24. Project Nightmare (1953)
    25. Sky Lift (1953)
    26. Tenderfoot in Space (1958)
    27. All You Zombies (1959)
  48. [with Spider Robinson] Variable Star (plotted 1955; published 2006)
  49. The Pursuit of the Pankera (2020) [alternate version of The Number of the Beast]

  50. Miscellaneous:

  51. Project Moonbase and Others: Collected Screenplays (2008)

Robert A. Heinlein: Project Moonbase and Others (2008)

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