Heinlein memoir: LEARNING CURVE - the secret history of science fiction


40 Responses to “Heinlein memoir: LEARNING CURVE - the secret history of science fiction”

  1. semiotix says:

    @Anon #28 (even though no one is reading this at this point):

    The “honorary male” idea was my own–I’ve never read anything about Heinlein, just his actual books. Of course, I’m not surprised other people got there first. It’s pretty obvious.

    It’s not that Deety and Hilda (for example) are too competent to be “real” women, although that’s a neat little bit of jiujitsu against the people who are seeing this. It’s that they explicitly renounce femininity, which often as not is the agent cause of whatever crisis they’re facing in the first place. You’re right about Heinlein valuing competence, but in book after book that’s mutually exclusive with anything recognizable as womanhood.

    Lady Macbeth (“unsex me here!”) is a great character, but if you only ever get that or Bianca and Hero cooing at their suitors, you’d have to grit your teeth through a lot of Shakespeare, or just stick to the plays that are more about cool fight scenes.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t read everything by Heinlein, focusing more on his later works. However, I read his works as more hetero-centric than homophobic. For instance, in “Time Enough for Love”, Lazarus Long states that the saddest thing about homosexuals is that they will never know the deep spiritual connection that is only possible in a male-female pairing.

    As for “Stranger In A Strange Land”, he again describes homosexuals as sad and confused. Also, when Ben and Jubal are discussing Ben’s trip to the Nest, Jubal comments that he was surprised that the males didn’t kiss in greeting as well. Ben admitted they did, but immediately claims it wasn’t anything gay. Jubal reassures him he knows it wouldn’t be and goes on about how common it was in other groups, such as the early Christians.

    Therefore, I wouldn’t call him so much afraid of homosexuals, but rather condescending towards them. Perhaps that seems a minor difference to some, but I think it is important.

    as for his treatment of his female characters… some of those criticisms seem justified. Other than Friday, he never really has a strong female protagonist. They are always second fiddle to the male. In fact, I found “The Puppet Masters” to be the worst I’ve read, with Mary barely qualifying as a cardboard character. It’s not that they can’t be strong or competent. It’s just that they are often more plot elements than people. It’s not that I dislike them, I’d just like to know more about them, see them as whole characters. And I’d like to see them get more chances to really save the day and so on.

    Then again, there wasn’t a lot of that going on in the Golden Age of scifi anyway.

    Oh, and on the racism charge, I was surprised that no one mentioned that the main character in “Starship Troopers” was Hispanic.

  3. semiotix says:

    I’m not sure I see racism in Heinlein’s stories (although I haven’t read all of them, including the ones jgs mentions). I’m also not sure I don’t see racism.

    But the sexism is impossible to ignore, and that’s factoring in the sliding scale of contemporary standards. He was a caveman by the standards of the 60s and 70s too.

    Two things serve to help conceal that fact. First, he liked writing about sex, and when he verged into giddy erotica, it made it easier to think his torpedo-breasted nymphettes (or their older equivalent, ultra-seductive femmes fatales) were just stock characters of the sex farce genre. Unfortunately most of his stories weren’t really about sex, and the nymphettes and cougars were there for the whole book.

    The other, cleverer way he disguised his sexism was by occasionally permitting his female characters to graduate to Honorary Male status. The female character, forced by a desperate situation to abandon her feminine frippery, undergoes a radical personality change into a clone of the swashbuckling male lead, and succeeds in saving the day. It’s not just that she rises to the occasion–it’s that she does so EXPLICITLY by swapping girlishness for manliness. Other characters comment favorably on it, or wonder if she can avoid falling back into womanly weakness at the crucial moment.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t read Heinlein, of course–we should, and we should watch those racist WWII-era Bugs Bunny cartoons while we’re at it. But it’s a mistake to gloss over it or assume it was just a reflection of his times–it wasn’t.

    • hep cat says:

      When I started reading Heinlein’s work I thought they were written by some woman named Roberta. Thinking that the author is a woman may have changed my perception of the sex and politics in the books, or maybe it was the fact that sex and politics where I was in the 70s wasn’t very different from a Heinlein novel.

    • jtf says:

      @jgs: Although I can’t find anything on Farnham’s Freehold, wikipedia does cite that Sixth Column wasn’t Heinlein’s idea, but was pushed on him by John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding magazine (I can’t be bothered to post the citation here, but you should be able to find it on Heinlein’s article). As for the rest of the Heinlein books I haven’t read, time to raid the used bookstore. There goes my weekend =D

      @semiotix: See, I saw that in Stranger as well and thought there might be something going on, but that’s the only work I ever saw where things might have been seen that way. But take for example Friday from the novel of the same name, or Wyoming from TMIAHM. I have a lot of trouble seeing Friday as filling a male mold, and even more trouble seeing Wyoming that way. The only whiff of stuff I’ve seen that might suggest something about Heinlein’s views is that all of his female characters want to have kids pretty badly. That usually comes at the end, though, so I don’t have any indication of whether Heinlein goes for the whole housewife thing.

      Also, I must admit when you talked about an “honorary male” I instantly thought about the unmarried mother in “All You Zombies.”

      • semiotix says:

        A good example of the Honorary Male syndrome is Number of the Beast. Or, of course, Starship Troopers, where pretty much all of human society is divided between weak, ultra-effeminate hand-wringers and the Citizens who make up the military. A few pitiable males get Honorary Girlhood thrust on them even as one or two silly girls Grow Up into Honorary Men.

        I know there’s some debate about the extent to which ST was meant to be taken literally or as satire (a la the movie), but there’s no mistaking the gendering that goes on.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for the review of this new work on Heinlein. I remember showing up at the Presidio of Monterey (near Carmel), California the week he died.

    His death was a major news item around town.

  5. Donald Petersen says:

    Pre-ordered for my Kindle! Can’t wait for tomorrow…

    I’ve loved Heinlein’s work since I was in elementary school. I don’t think I’ve read absolutely everything he has in print, but certainly most of it. And I never thought his work could be readily termed “sexist” or “not sexist.” I always thought he did things with his female characters that very few other contemporary authors did. They were generally painted as extremely brainy and extremely competent, and though I can’t think of a single one of them who wouldn’t be happier by being in the company of the right kind of man, none of them seemed to actually *need* masculine help to get through the trials and perils of their (sometimes pretty hazardous) day-to-day life. My biggest complaint was that all his female characters seemed alike. I can’t think of a particular emotional or philosophical or intellectual characteristic that would distinguish Wyoh Knott from, say, Deety Burroughs Carter or Jill Boardman or Gwen Novak or even Friday. All of them love to get laid and all of them want to bear children (by the right father), but they’re also strong and clever and resourceful and well-read and insubordinate and potentially lethal… characteristics that were at least as attractive to Heinlein as they are to me, I’d wager.

    But yes, they do have a distressing tendency to melt into the hero’s arms when he has to snap them back into line. Heinlein’s overreliance on the judgment of his male characters over that of his female ones does grate pretty quickly.

  6. Anonymous says:

    @29: “Given that she’s been dead for lo these many years now, It’s not Ginny’s approval I would worry about. It’s the trustees of the RAH estate, which I seem to recall include either a daughter or grand daughter, from a comment I heard by Spider Robinson, may have some oversight into the work.”

    Heinlein had no daughters (or sons), and thus no grandchildren. Dr. Amy Baxter was so close to the Heinleins in their later years that she was informally “adopted” as a granddaughter.

    • bmcraec says:

      Huh. Thanks for that. I didn’t know that, and of course there’s nothing on the Wikipedia article about it. Would Dr. Baxter then be on the trustees of the estate? I think I recall hearing that she was involved in the negotiations for Double Star.

  7. tim says:

    a utopian ideology based on global government, an end to war, technological increase, personal liberty, and a society built on fairness and equality

    How sad that in these bizarre times that description mostly evokes the quixotic sense of ‘utopian’.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure why “the authorized biography” is being used as a marketing tool. For me, at least, that is a strike against the book before I have even opened it. How often does a truly objective biography of a controversial figure manage to pass the approval of his widow?

    • bmcraec says:

      Given that she’s been dead for lo these many years now, It’s not Ginny’s approval I would worry about. It’s the trustees of the RAH estate, which I seem to recall include either a daughter or grand daughter, from a comment I heard by Spider Robinson, may have some oversight into the work.

      Regardless, I’ll be looking forward to reading this and the subsequent 2nd volume!

    • Counterglow says:

      Might I suggest that whether or not an authorized biography is to be respected has a lot to do with the kind of person who authorized it and when they did so (like after any wounds have healed)?

      I only raise the point because some unauthorized biographies are nothing but excuses to make money off the recently-deceased (who can’t be libelled in the US) with a bunch of sensationalistic and/or unprovable BS.

      I know if I died, I’d rather be remembered for who I was, warts and all, than depicted as some kind of saint who’d barely be recognizable to surviving friends and relatives.

    • freshacconci says:

      So, I read the review (quickly) and the reviewer is pointing out a couple of debatable flaws including labeling Edward VIII a boy King at the age of 42 (that’s a judgment call and he was boyish and definitely a carefree sort, so it fits) plus an historical detail which doesn’t jibe with another biographer’s record (which therefore falls to who-do-you-believe). And given the rather minor importance to these details I have to wonder why this reviewer is quibbling over such small details and ignoring the rest of the book. It’s almost like she skimmed the book, found a couple of errors, and declares the book untrustworthy, which I would say is some pretty lazy reviewing.

      BTW, I’m probably not the first to say this, but if they ever do a biopic of Heinlein, Terry O’Quinn would be the ideal actor to play him.

      • Quercus says:

        You do Jo Walton a disservice. She’s a good and clear reviewer, and her reviews on the Tor site are excellent. She has written a more detailed response elsewhere on Tor about her own response to Heinlein and why she thinks the Patterson biography is a poor biography but an awesome mountain of facts. The problem is that if the book’s redeeming feature is its factual density, then some of the minor details being erroneous casts doubt (rightly or wrongly) on the rest of it.

        (Incidentally, it’s quite impressive that Tor’s own site carries a dissenting review of one of their upcoming books)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I must not read enough 20th-century sci-fi, since I had no idea that “polyamory” and “libertarianism” were “important motifs” in that century’s work, other than in the works of Mr. Heinlein himself.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I, too, would rather have seen the notes as footnotes. When I got the advance copy of the book the first thing I did was to proof it, and it required two bookmarks. The notes were intended to be part of the text — but fashion in publishing has an iron grip.

    Thanks for your kind remarks.

    I did want to make one comment about something that isn’t actually in the biography and could conceivably get me in trouble: The inference that Hubbard took material from Jack Parsons to create Dianetics is widely spread on the internet, but the Heinlein biography doesn’t actually cover any of that.

    Once Hubbard (and Parsons) pass out of direct contact with Heinlein late in 1945, it’s all a matter of just the (epistolary) contact Heinlein did have with Hubbard, which misses this entirely.

    The Scientology people tend to get a little wild about this particular story. But it wasn’t part of Heinlein’s biography so I left it out. The book is quite long enough without it! Mega bibion, mega kakon.

  11. Dv Revolutionary says:

    I thought he got rid of a lot of early correspondence to hide what a lefty he had been. Kind of a sad internal McCarthyism all the more ironic because he said he didn’t fear the real McCarthy.

  12. invictus says:

    Sarah Hoyt comments on Jo Walton’s review, as well. Charlie Stross and Nick Mamatas, among others, make an appearance in the comment thread.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Stranger in a strange land had me cringing at certain moments.
    Jill is a wide-eyed bimbo for the first half of the novel and directed by Mike for the second half. The three other prominent women are housewives or secretaries. He even takes stabs at homosexuals in several parts of the novel. Not to mention nearly the entire novel is a stab at organized religion.

  14. Bill says:

    Author Bill Patterson responds to Walton’s comments:


  15. Anonymous says:

    Most complaints about “offensive” racial issues with Heinlein’s early work stem mostly from 2 works: Sixth Column, in which Heinlein wrote from Campbell’s outline (Campbell had pretty strong racist prejudices), and tried to ease/erase as much as the racism from the outline white writing as was possible given the book’s premise–see the character of Frank Mitsui; and Farnham’s Freehold (circa 1950s if memory serves), in which the SATIRE of cannibalistic Africans taking over the world and enslaving whites after nuclear holocaust is pretty obviously not a comment about black folk, but rather an exaggeration of the “look in the mirror” sort. Further proof of Heinlein’s forward thinking on racial issues is the little known fact that one of Heinlein’s protagonists in the juvenile series (Rod Walker from Tunnel in the Sky) is meant to be black, but which most readers, then or now, don’t seem to pick up on. Rod Walker is probably one of Heinlein’s most obviously likeable, sympathetic, competent characters. Without going into detail, the “sexism” claim is equally ridiculous if you’ve read much of Heinlein’s work. Unfortunately, casual readers often mistake Heinlein’s satire, opinions of villains, or the character flaws of protagonists as Heinlein gospel. Heinlein’s messages on race and gender are pretty clear: Racial equality and sexual liberation were strong themes, even in his early work. (Sorry to have to disagree on this point Cory)

    Patterson is one of, if not the, leading Heinlein scholars, and he has done a lot of work helping along the new wave of Heinlein scholarship. Most of the early criticism of Heinlein came from a couple of people with axes to grind, and/or extreme political starting points to color their criticism (Alexi Panshin, H. Bruce Franklin).

    I’m eagerly awaiting my copy of the biography, though Amazon hasn’t shipped yet.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I read Heinlein in my late teens and early 20′s and loved all his work. I thought his women were independent and liberated. I’ve re-read several of his books recently and as I am well…. umm… quite a bit older I found him to be sexist at best and misogynist at his worse. Change of times and my own perspective of this no doubt, but I find it detracts from his status of great sci fi writers in my opinion. You don’t see this in Asimov as an example. Still he was a pioneer in the genre and Stranger in a Strange Land is one of my all time favorites.

    • Anonymous says:

      “I read Heinlein in my late teens and early 20′s and loved all his work. I thought his women were independent and liberated. I’ve re-read several of his books recently and as I am well…. umm… quite a bit older I found him to be sexist at best and misogynist at his worse.”

      You’ve become older.. and wrong.

  17. Anonymous says:

    After reading Heinlein’s For Us The Living, reputedly his first novel, it is clear that his social and political ideas never changed. Everything that followed had a bit of that original included if one is speaking about his intent to “preach” his ideas. In the 30′s he would have seemed a lefty, while now his politics probably seem Libertarian. I would point to his last works like To Sail Beyond the Sunset and Friday as reinforcement to this argument.

  18. JonStewartMill says:

    Heinlein was notoriously recalcitrant about his early life and the two wives he was married to before his epic marriage to Virginia Heinlein. He repeatedly burned correspondence and other writings that related to that period.

    I think maybe you mean ‘reticent’.

    • Astragali says:

      Well… possibly. But to me, him burning his correspondence and other writings – to make it at least harder, if not impossible, to track down his early life – smacks of recalcitrance rather than reticence.

  19. Tynam says:

    Yeah, he was that too.

  20. jtf says:

    Cory, you guys really need to implement an edit button.

    I managed to find a pretty good survey of the pro- and anti-Heinlein critics prior to 2001, and now have the name of the guy who, as I remember, is widely regarded as starting the Heinlein-bashing trend: Alexei Panshin. You can read it at http://www.nitrosyncretic.com/rah/critics.html

    I’m unsure how biased or unbiased it is, coming from a Heinlein fansite, but it seems to devote some effort to remaining neutral.

  21. Anonymous says:

    As to the alleged racism of Heinlein, let‘s not forget Henry Gladstone Kiku in Starbeast, a black African from Kenya, who is the epitome of the sympathetic, savvy and competent elderly male Heinlein character.

  22. james4765 says:

    I love Heinlein, from the time I got The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress under the radar of my controlling stepmother because it was sci-fi, to now.

    It really is fascinating to read his work nowadays. He had no problems with bisexual women (actually liked them quite a but), but never had anything complimentary to say about bi or gay men. He was a firm believer in both personal liberty and military discipline. Two of his greatest works are about a prisoner rebellion and a militaristic/democratic society. His books challenged sexual mores, but some things were still taboo.

    In short, I would say that he embodies the cusp of the modern world – stunningly progressive for someone of his generation, and at the end of his life, slightly uncomfortable at how far past him the world had gone. Celebrating the best of the old, but leaning into the future without fear or shame.

    His works hold a place of high honor on my bookshelf. You could do far worse than to let a little more of that hard-charging libertine into your life.

  23. Tomas says:

    I’m reading the Bio now on my nook ereader, and the end-notes work great in that format – I click on the end-note number and am taken right to it, I click on it again and I’m right back to where I was.

    With a normal DTB (Dead Tree Book) Footnotes would be better, but with a competent ereader like the B&N nook, end-notes work perfectly.

    Interesting read, by the way. I’m enjoying learning more about Robert.

  24. jtf says:

    I’ve been a huge Heinlein fan since I was around ten years old, and never bought the charge that Heinlein was sexist or racist. The more I read, the less I could believe such things. Ironically, though, I was confused about that conclusion for years, because none other than my own dad told it to me. I’m frankly surprised that you mention it, Cory, because my impression after doing some digging is that many of those accusations stemmed from a single early critic of Heinlein whose conclusions were pretty poorly thought out.

    That said, the only one of Heinlein’s very early works I’ve read is “Have Space Suit — Will Travel” and I guess I’ll have to finish reading his colossal volumes of collected works before I’m able to be sure.

    That will be an entertaining challenge. Heehee.

    • jgs says:

      jtf, for some of the most in-your-face race stuff, try Farnham’s Freehold, followed by Sixth Column a.k.a. The Day After Tomorrow. Farnham’s Freehold isn’t “very early” though. And if Have Space Suit is the only early one you’ve read, you’re — mostly — in for a treat.

      • mccrum says:

        Farnham’s Freehold is the exact one I was thinking of as well. I feel he kind of goes back and forth however and that sometimes his characters are saying some of this stuff more than he is.

        However, the “elder” character who has all the resources he needs and sagely wisdom to match who always ends up getting the girl and outwitting the “young stud” in the end is a theme I feel he keeps bringing up for one reason or another as well…

  25. Anonymous says:

    Again some serious misconceptions here. Heinlein actually never had much negative to say about homosexual men (take a look at Time Enough For Love, I Will Fear No Evil, and Stranger in a Strange Land). Several of his characters briefly mention male homosexuality in earlier works, and in some later ones it is pretty strongly implied that bisexuality is the norm for both genders in the fictional cultures presented in those works. Then there is the male brain transplanted into a female body, which then seduces the the male friend of the original male brain (surrendering to the quasi-homo-erotic experience). Clearly not homophobic, especially considering the attitudes of most of his generation. Enthusiastic about hetero sex, not homophobic.

    The “honorary male” topic has been brought up before, but this is a mis-read. Heinlein based MANY of his female characters in part or in whole on his wife Virginia, who was a larger than life character (judo expert, horticulturist, world traveler, pretty near fearless, with a wild temper…sound familiar?). He valued COMPETENCE, as did most of the writers in SF of the 20th century, especially the first half of it. By allowing his female characters to be seen as competent, he was both modeling reality (his real wife, other women he knew), and stating pretty publicly that he felt there was equality between the sexes (he made explicit comments on equality of races & sexes in his personal life and public non-fiction writing). See Spider Robinson’s RAH RAH RAH for further debunking of the Heinlein as sexist myth. The only serious arguments for him being sexist stem from the idea that his women are TOO competent, and thus, faux males (though it’s never said in those words). This is thoroughly debunked.

    As for Alexi Panshin (the critic who pretty much poisoned Heinlein scholarship for 30 years with one ill-conceived book), he became offended when Heinlein attempted to keep part of his personal life private rather than let it all hang out and tell all to a stranger. He harassed Heinlein’s family, and was generally obnoxious to the point that Heinlein refused to speak with critics or allow a biography during his career (at least the latter part of it).

    If you really want to get into Heinlein scholarship, you want to take a look at a few more books: Grumbles From The Grave (Heinlein’s personal correspondence with his agent), A Tramp Royalle (his travel book detailing a trip around the world mostly by ocean-going cargo liners), For Us The Living (his first novel published posthumously), and Requiem (the trade paperback with intro by Yoji Kondo and at least a dozen essays by his fellow SF writers and friends in addition to several of his shorter and least-reprinted works, not the novella by the same name). There is also a guide to Heinlein’s work, The Heinlein Reader, by James Gifford. If you can get through all of that and still think Heinlein a racist, sexist, or anti-homosexual, you’re a rare bird for sure. Most folks who have those opinions base them on reading a small fraction of his works, without knowledge of the context in which they were written.

    Case in point: Starship Troopers had nothing to do with homosexuality (as someone suggested above). The “weak” vs strong motif had everything to do with Heinlein’s obsession with nuclear annihilation (he built his own bomb shelter in his basement), and his frustration with a society he thought was too soft to survive the coming nuclear war. It was not a comment about masculinity. Please note that women in his novel served in the navy as combat pilots; something unheard of at the time he published that work. Weakness in that novel had to do with being soft-minded, not gender. IF you think that’s the same thing (as has been said by many a “feminist” critic), then it truly makes you wonder who the sexist is. (many feminists critics said that his female characters were completely unrealistic, which is ludicrous, when you realize that he modeled many of them on his real-life wife, and if anything toned his characters down, rather than exaggerating.

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      In Stranger in a Strange Land, the protagonist finds a gay character so unnatural that he hurls him into the void.

      Mr. Heinlein spent some time at my former place of business interacting with women employees. They all wanted to hack his nuts of with a chainsaw because he was a pig.

      • Brainspore says:

        They all wanted to hack his nuts of with a chainsaw because he was a pig.

        That’s barbaric. You should never “hack” with a chainsaw! Cut in a slow, controlled motion.

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