Saturday, April 25, 2015

Heinlein and me

One of the common complaints from the Sad Puppies is that nowadays Robert Heinlein could not get published.  I think this is nonsense, at his best he was technically an excellent author and a great storyteller.  But this isn't about Puppygate but rather how Heinlein got me into science fiction.

My dad was always a big science fiction fan and when I was growing up there were always books by Heinlein and Isaac Asimov (his favorites) lying around the house.  When I was nine years old I picked up his copy of Starship Troopers and devoured it.  At ten I swiped his copy of  The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and fell in love with it.  At this age I was too young to really pick up on the problematic parts of both books and just considered them good space stories.  That these were my first two SF novels probably explains a great deal about me.

Nevertheless I think dad was slightly appalled at my choices and pushed me towards Heinlein's juveniles.  I know I read most if not all of the juveniles at this time but most don't seem to have stuck with me.  I remember enjoying Space Cadet but was not overly impressed with The Rolling Stones.  Eventually I moved on to SF by other authors but whenever I was bored I kept coming back to my first two books.  When I was in eighth grade we had an assignment to do a book report and create diorama based on the book.  Mine was the battle with the Skinnies in the first chapter of Starship Troopers.  This probably explains a lot about why my teachers thought about me the way that they did,

About this time I got interested in board wargaming and again RAH via my dad is to blame.  Dad had a copy of the old Avalon Hill Starship Troopers wargame.  He never really got into it but I thought it was really cool and basically appropriated it for myself.  In fact I still have it stored away someplace.  It hooked me on the hobby and I was soon saving my money to buy my own hex map and cardboard chits wargames.  First on SF&F themes but later historical ones too and I still enjoy the hobby.

I didn't get back to reading more Heinlein until I went to college.  I read the Future History short stories. I loved Time Enough For Love, especially the Notebooks of Lazarus Long sections.  I was disgusted with the sexism of Glory Road.  And I tried several times, then and since, to read A Stranger In A Strange Land but I could never get into it despite everyone saying it was his master work.  Apparently RAH thought it wasn't his best work either, so I guess I'm in good company.

I was in college in the mid-Eighties and this was when his later, weirder works were coming out.  I liked the setting of Friday if not the actual story.  While he had always had a tendency towards author tracts in his books it became more obvious near the end as the story gave way to the characters philosophizing.  In short, I got bored.

And it was in college that I finally became aware of the really problematic, if totally polar opposite, politics of Starship Troopers and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and they became less and less of my go to reads when bored.  Basically I finally grew up and grew past Heinlein.  I haven't really read any thing by him in about fifteen years when I re-read Number Of The Beast shortly after moving to Nevada and was mildly amused by the fact that the major characters get married in Elko.

So while I owe Robert Heinlein and my dad a great deal for getting me into both science fiction and wargaming, I find that I cannot really be one of his defenders.  As I said the man could write a good story in his prime but he just became too weird and too controversial for my tastes.

Two final notes.  First, I have never seen Paul Verhoeven's film adaptation of Starship Troopers nor do I ever intend to.  Aside from pumping up the already fascist elements of the novel up to eleven, when I found out the Mobile Infantry wasn't going to have power armor my immediate and continuing reaction was "What's the point?"  After all it was the only real cool thing in the book,

The second is the only RAH novel I still own a copy of continues to be The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.  I still have something of a week spot for it.  Yes, I recognize it as a completely unrealistic libertarian fantasy but Manny and Mike the Computer are still two of my favorite characters in all of science fiction.


  1. Robert Heinlein's Juveniles were some of my first SF books also. At a time when I was pretty opposed to reading, unlike now, Dad introduced me to these books and the captivated my imagination. I would like to actually get my hands on copies of them again.

  2. So, I actually didn't start on Heinlein until after college, based on Spider Robinson's admiration for him and my admiration for Spider Robinson. Since I was poor, I picked up the 2 longest reads I could get - Time Enough for Love and Number of the Beast. Which, not having read any earlier stuff, was confusing to say the least.

    I think a lot of people mistake Heinlein's characters' views for his own - Glory Road is *super* sexist...except when it's not. Sixth Column is *super* racist, largely because it takes place in a fictional future in which China has taken over the entirety of Asia and the US is at war with them...but Starship Troopers has maybe 1 white guy in the whole thing (one of the many problems I have with the movie is that they turned into yet another "white people save the day" movie, when almost all of the characters from the book are not). I think he does a very good job of writing the time, and the most clear example of that is sadly, his last - To Sail Beyond the Sunset. It's pretty clear that he knew when he was writing it that it would be his good-bye, so it's no mistake that the setting for it is basically the entire 20th century. He has a lot to say in there about institutional sexism, and a little less about institutional racism, but it's clear that he recognized both of those things before the term became commonplace. That said, there's still a good bit of nutty libertarian stuff in there.

    I won't argue with the fact that his later books have a lot of pontificating, but I never minded that. As it turns out, the juveniles tend to have that, too - it's just better hidden, and a lot of it tends to be about math and astrogation.