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

The first volume of William H Patterson's enormous Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is out. It's the first authorized biography of the sf writer who popularized at least three important motifs of the 20th century (polyamory, private space travel and libertarianism) and redefined the field of science fiction with a series of novels, stories and essays that are usually brilliant but sometimes self-indulgent, sometimes offensive in their treatment of race and gender, and always provocative and generally sneaky.

The best review I've read of this book so far comes from John Clute, one of the field's great scholars and critical writers, who devoted his June column in Strange Horizons to discussing Heinlein's work and (flatteringly enough) comparing it to the whys and hows of my own work. I recommend you read Clute's piece now, but for those of you without the time to follow the link, I'll sum up some of the bones of Clute's essay:

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. Clute suggests that this is partly driven by Heinlein's desire to be Robert A Heinlein, titan of the field, without having to cope with his youthful embarrassments. It's a good bet — lots of the stuff that drives young people to write science fiction also makes them a pain in the ass to be around until they work some of the kinks out of their system (I wholeheartedly include myself in this generalization).

Patterson doesn't seem to have ever met Heinlein, and most of Heinlein's contemporaries were dead by the time Virginia Heinlein authorized the project, which means that, by and large, Patterson works from secondary and tertiary sources (fascinatingly documented in a lengthy set of end-notes that I'd much rather have seen as footnotes), playing detective, especially in Heinlein's early, pre-WWII military career. This makes some of the early material a bit dry, a bit of a detective's notebook rather than the gripping narrative that the book gradually turns into as Heinlein comes into focus through increased use of primary sources.

But the dry detective work of those first hundred-some pages (the main body of the enormous book runs to 473 pages) absolutely pays off as the book goes on. Patterson isn't just aiming to be a detective of Heinlein's life: he's seeking out the inspiration, situational and philosophical, behind Heinlein's fiction, and the carefully traced pathways from Heinlein's boyhood and adolescence into his career as a writer are peppered with Aha! moments as the origins of his best-loved work are revealed.

Patterson also puts forward a pretty comprehensive case for the idea that Heinlein's fiction generally conveys Heinlein's own political beliefs. This is widely acknowledged among Heinlein fans, save for a few who seem distressed by the idea that the blatant racism and sexism (especially in the earlier works) are the true beliefs of the writer at the time of writing and would prefer to believe that Heinlein didn't write himself into his works. I got into a pretty heated debate with one such person at the Heinlein panel at the 2007 Comicon, who maintained the absurd position that Heinlein's views could never be divined by reading his fiction — after all, his characters espouse all manner of contradictory beliefs! (To which I replied: "Yes, but the convincing arguments are always for the same set of beliefs, and the characters who challenge those beliefs are beaten in the argument.") Not that I fault Heinlein for this — it's an honorable tradition in SF and the mainstream of literature, and I find Heinlein's beliefs to be nuanced and complex, anything but the reactionary caricature with which he is often dismissed.

Once Heinlein gets out of the Navy, marries his second wife, Leslyn, and relocates to LA, things start to get a lot more interesting. He and Leslyn had an open marriage, and were at the center of a quirky, bohemian circle of sf writers and oddballs. They befriended a young L Ron Hubbard (Leslyn later has an affair with him) and subsequently introduced him to a disciple of Crowleyan sex magick, who, it seems, inspired much of Dianetics (but this comes later, after the war).

Heinlein also began writing fiction for John W Campbell in this period, and their chummy — but often tempestuous — correspondence is a genuinely fascinating look into the development of the Heinlein Project, the thing that motivated Heinlein through his years as a writer, and before that as a California politician (as Clute puts it, "he was a utopian quasi-socialist Social-Credit doorbell-ringer for the Upton Sinclair rump of the Democratic party in California") — a utopian ideology based on global government, an end to war, technological increase, personal liberty, and a society built on fairness and equality.

Heinlein's war years are harrowing due to personal illness and long years spent working as an engineer in a materiel factory (his poor health disqualified him from active military service), and put him in the center of a gang of sf writer/engineers whom he gathered around him to work on the war effort, including an obnoxiously high-strung young Isaac Asimov, who had to be treated like a clever but naughty puppy.

After the war, Heinlein's second marriage turned sour (his first marriage hardly existed and was dissolved quickly) and his fortunes wavered as he strove to find his place in the world, with one foot in the pulps and the other in respectable slicks like the Saturday Evening Post. The complex logistics of the dissolution of his second marriage to Leslyn — his longtime collaborator, who had fallen to alcoholism and depression — are made more fraught by the commercial uncertainty his fictional risk-taking engenders, but by the book's ending, Heinlein's career is in the black, he has remarried (to Virginia Heinlein, to whom he remained married until he died) and things seem to be going well for him.

I've read a few memorable histories of the early years of science fiction, such as Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary's Better to Have Loved and Damon Knight's The Futurians but Heinlein was in a class all his own, someone who, along with John W Campbell and a few others, personally changed the shape of the field, and possibly the world.

Reading Learning Curve feels a little like happening on a secret history, a hidden lens through which my understanding of the world came into slightly sharper focus. I'm really looking forward to volume two.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve