Heinlein freaked out at "invasive" review of STRANGER IN A STRANGER LAND

Science fiction legend Frederik Pohl continues his memoir-in-blog-form, HOW THE FUTURE BLOGS. Today, he's got a post about how Robert A Heinlein reacted to an early look at AJ Budrys's detailed and highly critical review of the major novel Stranger in a Strange Land.

It's a great little anaecdote, but Pohl's being somewhat coy or elliptical in explaining the incident: apparently Budrys's review was viewed by Heinlein as an invasion of his privacy (despite the fact that Budrys and Heinlein didn't know each other). Reading between the lines, it sounds to me like Pohl is saying that Budrys speculated that Heinlein was polyamorous (Stranger is one of the most influential sources of inspiration for the poly movement). I don't know if Heinlein was or not, but I could see how, in 1961, this might be an upsetting thing to have said about you in print.

Happy ending: Pohl introduced Heinlein and Budrys to each other at the Seattle Worldcon and the two became good pals.

So there was a dilemma. I didn't want to deprive AJ of an audience for a piece of good, hard work. I also didn't want to get Robert mad at me. I stewed over the problem for a while, finally decided to leave the decision up to Robert himself and shipped off a copy of the review to him, pleased with myself for having solved the problem.

Then, a week or two later, the mailman handed me a large and heavy manila envelope with Heinlein's return address on it and, "My God," I said out loud, "Bob has written me a novelette!"

I was wrong about that, though. The twenty or thirty closely typed pages in the envelope weren't fiction, they were an impassioned denunciation of the review, of invasive reviews in general and of the person who had written it -- who, Robert conjectured, was some effete New York bookworm who had never traveled more than a few dozen miles from his home and had no knowledge of what the real world was like.

Robert A. Heinlein, Algis Budrys and me

(Images: File:Algis Budrys 1985.jpg, Bill Shunn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA; File:Heinlein-face.jpg, Dd-b/Wikimedia Commons, GDL)


  1. i recently re-read stranger… and i think it’s really sexist, for example, ‘nine out of ten women are to be blamed themselves when raped’
    didn’t like it at all, pseudo-philosophical hippie bs…

    1. I agree completely. I suppose it’s important to keep in mind the time period when it was written, but almost all the older SciFi novels (which to me was the “new wave” 60’s and 70’s books) just struck me as completely out of whack in their handling of women, and that was as a young male teen.

      In terms of later books, Bio of a Space Tyrant was horrifying to me. The kid’s sister was raped, which turned the kid on (??) and then she ended up traveling the universe with her rapist (!!). Those were some seriously f’ed up books.

    2. Also, where does it say that? I can recall multiple books that mention rape, but none of them that mention that nasty pseudo-statistic at all..

      In one book, the characters discuss rape and say something like, ‘On Earth there used to be a defense for rape called ‘insanity’. In Luna, it’s accepted that someone who would rape another person has to be insane, and it gets them thrown out of the nearest airlock.’. (I think that was ‘Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’?)

      It’s mentioned twice in ‘Cat Who Walks Through Walls’, once in a torture scene in ‘Friday’, and probably here and again in other books. No ‘blame the victim’ scenes.

      In any case, several of Heinlein’s characters make a point of refusing to engage in intercourse with people who are indebted or in service to them, and he notably equates a customer’s refusal to pay the agreed upon amount for intercourse rape, so his attitude toward rape in fiction seems to be the exact opposite of the statement that you mentioned.

      That’s not to say that he didn’t personally feel differently, but that if he did feel that way, it’s not shown in his work.

      1. there you go: “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s at least partly her own fault.”
        and i really don’t see any ‘strong’ female characters. all they do is working as secretaries for one of the main male characters, which is clearly heinlein himself (who [the character, idk about heinlein] is, on a sidenote, extremely homophobic), cook dinner, serve drinks and are willing to have sex all the time. even the one important older female character (the tatooed woman with the snake) is described as looking as good as in her twenties (of course.. wouldn’t want to f** a woman who’s in her fifties, right? come on!) and – surprise – has sex with the ‘stranger’ (and his girlfriend of course)
        i am certainly not a feminist myself (i’m male btw) but this book was one of the worst in this matter i ever read.
        as a scifi fan, i really liked the idea, but this book made me angry (i read the uncut version btw)

  2. Take it in context, Current. Heinlein wasn’t writing his own beliefs, he was writing what his characters would have believed. That particular horrible idea is still in force today, so it’s not exactly something he made up, or something that the average person didn’t believe then. (The average person still believes it today, as well, which is sad but a whole different topic…)

    Further, if you read his books, including ‘Stranger’, you see some of the strongest female characters in literature, and you’re seeing it from a guy that was born in the early 1900’s. Pretty amazing, IMHO.

    1. Take it in context, Current. Heinlein wasn’t writing his own beliefs, he was writing what his characters would have believed.

      No. He was a pig. I had the opportunity to listen to a stream of my female co-workers tell me the various ways that they’d like to murder him.

      1. He was a pig. I had the opportunity to listen to a stream of my female co-workers tell me the various ways that they’d like to murder him.

        I have no trouble believing this, but I also believe that Heinlein was a good enough writer that you can’t attribute to him what his characters believe. As Semiotix said, we have to give writers the benefit of that doubt, and base our opinions of the man on his behaviour instead of that of his characters.

        1. As Semiotix said, we have to give writers the benefit of that doubt,

          Thanks for the namecheck. I cheerfully invite you to read the three paragraphs immediately following it, which begin “But…”.

    2. Heinlein wasn’t writing his own beliefs, he was writing what his characters would have believed. …Further, if you read his books, including ‘Stranger’, you see some of the strongest female characters in literature…

      To a certain extent, we always have to give writers the benefit of that doubt. But over the course of a novel, much less over the course of a career’s worth of similarly-written books, if the author doesn’t find some way to provide a different perspective than the one certain sexist/racist/whatever-ist characters have, he’s basically complicit in that viewpoint, and it’s almost certainly his own. Know how I know Tom Clancy is a defense hawk?

      I wouldn’t call the female characters in Stranger strong, and certainly not in his other books, either. Take Number of the Beast, where his female characters are literally asserting military authority over male protagonists and committing Jack-Bauer style genocide when the plot calls for it. Are they strong women? No, because he explicitly makes the point that they started being strong when they decided to stop acting like women, and in both books he provides clear counter-examples of dangerously useless girly-girls. (Ditto again for Starship Troopers.)

      It’s not like he was out of synch with his peers in this regard, or for that matter broader American society. Asimov did the same thing in, well, every book he ever wrote. But I think it’s a mistake to assume that what looks and walks and talks like sexism must be something else, especially since his “context” is pretty well knowable.

  3. I just read this myself, and really wanted to read the review! Heinlein is a touch of a paradox for me, I find him compelling but objectionable in so many ways. Interested to hear that you think the review might have suggested he was polyamourous. That was not the weirdest he got though. Listening to Time Enough for Love as an audiobook on a long journey, i got to the part where he is persuaded by his two female clones to impregnate them. Then again i always read TEfL as old man wish fulfilment, so no idea what that says about him.

  4. As I understand it, Heinlein did have open relationships with his various wives (sequential, not concurrent)–but was also an intensely private person. You can see this in his very first book–last published–“For Us, the Living,” in which he features the idea of public and private spheres. It wasn’t just prohibited to report on private spheres, it was extremely rude to even inquire about something in a private sphere unless invited.

    An excellent idea, I think. People’s private lives are none of my business, and I don’t WANT to know. I spend a lot of my life actively avoiding various news sources.

    ~ ~ ~

    Current, Heinlein was darned progressive in his treatment of women in a number of ways. He was just hampered by the fact that he started writing in the ’40’s (and grew up in the early part of the 1900’s).

    IMO, he did well for his era. There are parts that are objectionable to me as a person of MY era, but (shrug) looking in context, he did an amazing job.

  5. Agree, ora. Heinlein wrote some of the greatest SF ever done. My favorite is The Door Into Summer. But his weird views of marriage and women made most of his later stuff unpalatable. And Stranger was where all of that crap began. Too bad about his changes, because Friday was a great book despite the yucky stuff.

  6. I’m a big fan of Heinlein in general, but found Stranger to be rather dull. Apparently there are two “cuts” of the book so maybe I read the wrong one. Anyway, if you haven’t read it, I’d recommend you skip it and read his book “Time Enough for Love” instead.

  7. Man, Pohl’s such a tease – now I want to read Burdrys’ critique and Heinlein’s rant about it!

    As to Heinlein’s sexuality, well. “Papa spank!”

    (not that my sex life is all that different, except I’m more likely to be spanked for being an uppity, malfunctioning robot toy spider-girl than for being an uppity daughter.)

  8. I think the mainstream viewpoint of male/female relationships is infinitely more squicky than Heinlein’s.

    Note, Bob’s viewpoint slightly skeeves me too (speaking of his actual viewpoint as elaborated in “For Us, the Living” and not the viewpoints espoused by fictional characters) but it’s way better than the mainstream, where women are property and the only improvement in 500 years is that they are now their own property in fact (though still metaphorically male property, bearing their fathers’ names until “given away” to another male).

    People should be able to put their bodies where they want to in relationship to other bodies, within the dictates of mutual consent and reasonable hygiene. Religion need not be involved or consulted, and the state should only be involved to the limits required for the continuation of society through the education of children.

  9. Heinlein’s reaction is priceless too:

    “an impassioned denunciation of the review, of invasive reviews in general and of the person who had written it — who, Robert conjectured, was some effete New York bookworm who had never traveled more than a few dozen miles from his home and had no knowledge of what the real world was like

    Alas for our red-blooded writer with the touchy ego, this reviewer was the polyglot, Lithuanian-born Budrys…

  10. 1st, thanks to Cory for covering some cool, previously unknown backstory to one of the most significant, impactful SF books ever written. It is true that Heinlein was inconsistant on sexuality as were most writers of the era. Pohl shows Heinlein was concerned about his own public perception and emasculates his critic before becoming pals w/him later.

    I’m surprised no one in the comments has mentioned Farnham’s Freehold, which seems highly prescient these days.

  11. Ah the perfect opportunity to continue my Pitch to Cusak.
    John if you read this, your produciton company should option and produce Stranger in a Strange Land. I see you as Ben Caxton.
    think about it. Stylisticly keep it like written sort of Mad Men meets the Jetsons.

    who is with me on this?

  12. For those curious about Heinlein’s life, coming Aug. 17, 2010 is Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1949): Learning Curve by Bill Patterson and published by Tor.

  13. As I recall, Heinlein didn’t care much for reviewers who expressed negative opinions about his fiction and/or speculated about his personality. Alexei Panshin got on Heinlein’s bad side with an essay about sex in Heinlein’s work and, unlike Budrys, it doesn’t seem that Heinlein ever really forgave him.

    See: http://www.enter.net/~torve/critics/Heinleinsex/sexintro.htm

    If Budrys and Panshin had taken their analyses of Heinlein a little further, they might not have been quite so surprised by his reaction. He doesn’t come across as a man who would tolerate much in the way of second-guessing or questioning.

  14. The genius of Heinlein’s work (and the best Science Fiction) is that is pushes the reader past his comfort points and calls into question all of the assumptions of the present day. It’s not surprising that so many people squeal with indignation over the ideas he presents (though not necessarily espouses).

    And it’s not surprising that he was indignant over invasions into his personal life. He consistently railed against busy-bodies and invasion of privacy throughout all of his work.

    1. OTOH, he could’ve pulled a Pynchon and kept completely out of the public view. Instead, he chose to stay in the public eye.

      I’ve never cared for Heinlein, either his writings or his politics. I find his very good buddy Ted Sturgeon to be much more interesting on both counts. Sturgeon was also a sexual free-thinker by the standards of the day (and even today). IIRC, Heinlein wrote a very flattering intro to Sturgeon’s posthumously published last novel, _Godbody_.

  15. Cheap and tawdry pitches aside, I think I devoured almost everything Heinlein wrote. I would get on jags reading nothing but his work until Ihad to throw the book across the room when I got tired of his POV. Most of his later stories had the free love theme as well as a very strong strain of Libertarian thinking that I found to my liking. But still I would grow weary of his world view and put him down. I am like that with Clancy too.
    I read the essay by Panshin. I disagree with his main thesis that SIASL could be harmful to society. Sexual repression is far more harmfull the its celebration which is kind of what I get out of the book.

  16. Heinlein was notoriously touchy about his private life. I stood behind Panshin in NYC when Heinlein blew up at him during a book signing. From other reports, he found fault with numerous friends over the years if they didn’t agree with him on most things. How Pohl, a lifelong liberal, managed to remain close to him all those years is something Fred should write about.

  17. I get the impression that Budrys groped uncomfortably close to the truth about Heinlein’s personal life. The American swinging culture reportedly began in the U.S. Army Air Corps during the Second World War, which later became the Air Force. Heinlein and his wife Virginia moved to Colorado Springs in the 1950’s, a city with several Air Force facilities. He might have used his military contacts to get introductions to other swinging couples there.

  18. heinlein’s right-wing politics – libertarian/militarist, more precisely – are hardly news. his particular band of misogyny, which has been pretty well described already, tends to go along with that overall viewpoint. it also tends to accompany the increasingly popular justification of conservative politics through sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and other related pseudosciences…

    it’s not the traditionalist right-wing position, which could maybe be called ‘reactionary’, which we’re more accustomed to in this country; it’s the innovative right-wing position, which tends towards fascism of one kind or another. not jerry falwell, ron paul. for folks whose liberal-to-progressive politics are stronger on valuing individual freedoms than analyzing structural inequalities, this can be confusing.

  19. Heinlein’s epitaph to Sturgeon in the introduction to Godbody is a love letter to that community as much as to Sturgeon himself.

    Science fiction writers get really pervy as they age. Stranger is interesting less for its perversity as for its sociological comments on cannabalism. Social libertarianism seems appropriate.

    As a middle-aged woman, I love all the young male science fiction fans who judge sexism so harshly. Most of these guys were positively progressive for their time.

    Now I must plug Cory Doctorow’s mentor Judith Merril — best science fiction I’ve ever read, with many feminist themes.

    1. Really?! I’m the only one in this thread to mention the cannibalism in Stranger and it goes unremarked?

      Heinlein must be less interesting and influential than I thought — his reputation among geeks notwithstanding.

      So does anyone here eat their dead?

      1. Just not sure why cannibalism should be remarkable. Why remark on that any more than any of the other, more innovative weirdnesses in the book? Does cannibalism make a book evil or something?

        Like, I want to steal the idea of clothes and a tub of money by the door from SiaSL. Nice and practical. But first, I need my own home…

  20. I’m looking forward a few decades, to when they start slagging off today’s media as misandrist. Iron Man 2, for example, would be unacceptable to a modern audience if all the genders were reversed.

    1. @Dewi: Sadly, _most_ modern movies would be unacceptable to a modern audience if the genders were reversed, but that’s largely a result of misogyny, not misandry.

      (Yes, including Iron Man 2. Exercise: Name five action movies from this year. Now name one that passes the Bechdel-Wallace test. If you can; I can’t.)

  21. Is it impossible for readers to just enjoy a novel for the sheer enjoyment of the read? I read every one of his books from my high school years in the mid 60’s graduated in 68 to early 70’s(devoting 30 min a day in the washroom at work, when my fellow employee’s discovered this they began liberating the books from my desk and also reading them I sometimes had to purchase a 2nd copy).Does anyone GROK this???

  22. As long as he doesn’t scare the horses, being dead and all, Heinlein is welcome to his private spaces. I outgrew him on Ganymede, once it became clear his only contribution to us 21st Centurions would be tea baggery.

    1. The snobbery Heinlein brings out in some readers is quite fascinating in itself.

      I’m not sure what causes it, but I think it might be a reaction to cognitive dissonance between their popularity, and the perception of the deserved popularity: you get similar reactions to Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, and other popular musicians, politicians, sports stars, religious figures, etc.

      Someone dislikes the work of an artist, but sees that the work is popular: instead of understanding that theirs is just one of many possible legitimate opinions, the cognitive dissonance resolves itself by making them see those who disagree with them as inferior in some way: stupid, juvenile, or perverted.

      Each time they see something that disagrees with this idea, they subconsciously resist it, and by resisting, become more entrenched in their point of view.

      Of course, in the case of Dan Brown, this is all entirely justified. Only the children of retarded perverts read that stuff :P

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