Notes from the Curator's Office
Big Three: Robert Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein
autographing books in 1976. (Photo by
Dd-b licenced through GNU Free Documentation License and
This is the second of three articles reviewing
the work of the "Big Three" science fiction authors of the 20th
(8/07) Of the Big Three, science fiction
author Robert A. Heinlein is probably the most enigmatic. To readers
of his work he sometimes appears to speak as a flaming liberal,
at others times a reactionary conservative with politics a little
to the right of Darth Vader. To make things even more complicated,
the real Robert Heinlein was not an easy man to get to know because
of his strong feelings about privacy.
Last month marks the 100th anniversary of Heinlein's
(which is pronounced Hine-line) birth on July 7, 1907.
He was born in Butler, Missouri, the heart of the American Mid-west.
He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, reaching the
rank of lieutenant before he was discharged 1934 because of a
bout with pulmonary tuberculosis. Heinlein always had an engineering
mind and while he was forced to remain in bed convalescing, he
came up with the idea of the waterbed which he later described
in his books.
After a brief try at politics, Heinlein decided
to try and earn some money by writing. In 1939, his first story,
Life-Line, was published in Astounding Science-Fiction
magazine. During World War II he worked at the Philadelphia
Naval Yard doing aeronautical engineering. This activity put him
in close contact with another of the Big Three members: Isaac
Asimov. He also worked closely there with L. Sprague de Camp,
who was to become a major science fiction and fantasy author over
the next several decades. One can't help but wonder what the lunch
time repartee was like.
Robert Heinlein, L. Sprage de Camp and Isaac Asimov at the
Philadelphia Naval Yard.
After the war Heinlein became the first science-fiction
writer to move from pulp magazines to more general publications
like the Saturday Evening Post. Most of Heinlein's work
was "hard" science fiction - a subset of the genre which emphasizes
technical detail and scientific accuracy. Typical of this was
a project he got involved in 1950 called Destination Moon.
This was a documentary-type exercise about what the first trip
to the moon might look like. Heinlein conceived of the idea, co-wrote
the script and even invented many of the special effects for the
film. In fact, the effects he helped engineer were so ground breaking
that the picture was given an Academy Award.
Starting around that time Heinlein also worked out
an arrangement with Charles Scribner's Sons Publishing. Each year
for the Christmas season Heinlein would produce a novel for the
juvenile market. Heinlein's Juveniles, as they are called,
are some of his best, and certainly most influential, works. Thousand
of teenagers, who eventually became engineers and scientists,
grew up reading these books. The first of this series of twelve
was Rocket Ship Galileo, published in 1947. It told the
story of a group of teens who retrofit a rocket ship to go to
Destination Moon won an Academy Award for special
Typical of the series is number six, one of my favorites,
The Rolling Stones. This book is about the Stone family
who live on the moon in the distant future. The family's twin
sons convince their father to purchase a slightly-used spaceship,
refurbish it and go cruising around the solar system, visiting
such places as the asteroid belt and Mars. On the red planet they
pick up a native form of life called a "flatcat" which multiplies
out of control once back aboard the ship. Science fiction enthusiasts
will recognize this incident as similar to the plot of the Star
Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles. It was so similar,
in fact, that it was necessary for producers to get Heinlein to
agree to sign a waver before the episode could be filmed.
Heinlein took pains in each story to discuss the
engineering aspects of many of the devices used by the protagonists.
In the last book in the juvenile series, Have Spacesuit - Will
Travel, he spends considerable time in allowing the narrator,
Kip, to explain the function and repair of a spacesuit which Kip
has won as part of a publicity contest. This attention to detail
shows Heinlein's engineering background and undoubtedly engaged
the interest of many of his readers who went on to become engineers
themselves. This type of technical detail can be seen throughout
much of Heinlein's works, though critics complain that it often
slows down the story.
The juvenile stories were actually read and enjoyed
by many adults, too. In Have Spacesuit - Will Travel, Kip,
a high-school senior, finds himself an unwilling passenger on
his way to Pluto when he attempts to rescue a nine-year-old girl
kidnapped by alien invaders. Their adventures involve such diverse
activities as stealing a flying saucer, making a desperate run
across the surface of the moon under threat of asphyxiation, and
standing on trial in an inter-galactic court defending all humanity
Heinlein respected his young audience and always
pushed the limits of juvenile fiction by including themes and
concepts that were designed to stretch teenage thinking. The series
ended when Heinlein, in the opinion of his publisher, pushed juvenile
fiction too far by writing a novel about infantry men of the future
caught in a vast interplanetary war. The book, Starship Troopers,
was eventually printed by another publisher and quickly became
one of Heinlein's most successful, though controversial, novels.
The First Edition
cover of Have Space Suit - Will Travel
We are now at a point where it probably makes sense
to discuss Heinlein's political leanings. In his earlier years,
Heinlein seems to be a liberal and was in fact at one point a
member of a Socialist party. By the Reagan era, however, he appears
to have transformed into a staunch conservative. The truth is
that Heinlein is almost impossible to pin down to one portion
of the political spectrum. Throughout most of his life, however,
he seems mostly to have adhered to libertarian philosophy: people
should be able to live their life as they wish as long as they
give others the right to do the same.
Starship Troopers, though labeled a novel
about war, actually spends a lot more time talking about philosophy.
In it, Heinlein allows his characters to express some of his ideas
about suffrage (only those who have volunteered service to the
government, like two years in the infantry, are allowed to vote),
war ("violence has settled more issues in history than has any
other factor.") and democracy. (They fail because "people had
been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they
wanted... and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.")
Most people are only familiar with the book through
Paul Verhoeven's 1997 film version of Starship Troopers.
That project, however, did not start as a film version of Heinlein's
book, but the title, characters and some of Heinlein's ideas were
added later. For this reason most fans don't like the film. I
have to admit, however, that I'm surprised how much of his ideas
actually did find their way into the film. The society pictured
in the movie is much like that described in the book. Voting franchise
is extended only to those who have given two years of service
to the government (usually military service), corporal punishment
is used sometimes instead of a penal system, and the attitude
of the film seems decisively pro-military. These ideas bothered
a lot of people and I suspect that they bothered Verhoeven also
(in fact, Verhoeven has stated that he did not even finish reading
the book as he found it too depressing). The result is that while
a lot of Heinlein's ideas are here in the movie, Verhoeven, perhaps
as a protest, has also incorporated uniforms and propaganda-like
material into the film that is vaguely suggestive of the Nazi
era (though a Nazi Germany without sexual or racial discrimination).
I have to say that the final results (in addition to be a decent
action flick) are at least somewhat thought-provoking.
poster for Starship Troopers - not completely Heinlein's
What was completely left out of the movie, however,
is any of the technological innovations Heinlein put in the book.
The Mobile Infantry of the book as envisioned by Heinlein was
a strike force parachuting out of orbit and directly down to the
surface of the planet. Troopers were equipped with powered armor
giving them super strength, electronically-extended senses (night
vision, etc.), and the ability to leap tall buildings in a single
bound. This effectively made Heinlein's troopers walking, one-man
tanks. None of these innovations showed up in the movie, but they
did not escape the notice of the Pentagon which researched some
of these ideas extensively. While the military has yet to produce
a suit of powered armor that is practical, things like night-vision
goggles and GPS positioning systems are now standard military
equipment. Also, the concepts espoused in the book, that soldiers
should be a high-tech strike force, are now echoed in actual military
service policies. The book is on the reading list of all the U.S.
Starship Troopers created a whole new sub-genre:
the science fiction military novel. It was also terribly controversial
and seen by many as a glorification of war and militarism. Some,
like Verhoeven, have looked at the society Heinlein portrays in
the book and found it fascist. In any case, as I noted before,
the publisher, Scribner, felt that it didn't fit the juvenile
series and the relationship with Heinlein ended. This was fine
with Heinlein, who was tired of being seen as just a young person's
At the same time Heinlein was working on Starship
Troopers, he was also writing what is probably his best-known
work Stranger in a Strange Land. Stranger in a Strange
Land is the story of Valentine Michael Smith, the child of
two astronauts that disappeared on a failed expedition to Mars.
Smith is raised by Martians and returned to Earth as an adult.
Initially Smith understands little of Earth customs and culture.
Eventually, however, Smith "groks" (the Martian word for understands)
people and founds his own religious cult.
Cover for Stranger
in a Strange Land
Heinlein's editors insisted he cut the book from
about 200,000 words to 160,000 words, removing many scenes and
ideas that would have been shocking to the public when the book
was first released in 1961. This is the first book where Heinlein's
unconventional ideas about free love, group sex and nudity emerged.
Stranger in a Strange Land soon became a favorite novel
of the 60's anti-war counterculture, despite the fact that ironically
it had been written by the same man who had simultaneously produced
the militaristic Starship Troopers.
In 1966 Heinlein produced The Moon Is a Harsh
Mistress, the story of an unlikely set of future revolutionaries
led by a sentient computer that sets the lunar colonies in rebellion
against mother Earth. This book probably is the best representation
of Heinlein's beliefs as the storyline allows him free reign to
discuss his ideas about government, society and family. The lunar
colonists, mostly convicted criminals or political exiles, create
a society with little government, save the despotic "lunar authority"
controlled from Earth. There is no real need for police or a jail
on the moon as misbehavior is punished by simply tossing any offender
out of the nearest airlock. Typical family arrangements in Heinlein's
world disappear in favor of marriages involving multiple husbands
Even with these strange societal twists, however,
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress remains a work of hard science
fiction - the technology is plausible and well thought-out. After
1980, a period that followed a serious illness, Heinlein's work
took a more fantasy-like turn. The adventure stories of an earlier
era taking a backseat to his unorthodox philosophies. These final
novels, which include The Number of the Beast and The
Cat Who Walks Through Walls, are extremely controversial especially
with many of his fans who originally fell in love with his juvenile
work back in the 1950's.
One issue Heinlein always felt strongly about and
championed in his final years was racial equality. Heinlein often
challenged readers' racial stereotyping by introducing a character,
letting the reader get to know the character, then only much later
on giving a physical description that included the character's
race. Heinlein also strongly denounced racism in his non-fiction
As he grew older Heinlein suffered a series of serious
health problems and on May 8th 1988 he died of emphysema and congestive
heart failure. However he left behind a legacy of engaging and
thought-provoking works: 32 novels and 59 short stories. (A full
list of his works can be found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein_bibliography)
Another three non-fiction novels were published posthumously.
I have to say that of all his works, I still enjoy his juvenile
series the best. Even though it originally came out in the 1950's,
they still remain as exciting and challenging for young readers
as ever, while at the same time having the maturity necessary
to hold adult interest.
The great author's impact on science and science
fiction has not ended with his death. In 2003 The Heinlein
Prize, an award for practical accomplishments in commercial
space activities, was established. The prize, initially worth
$500,000, will be given to one or more individuals who have achieved
practical accomplishments in the field of commercial space activities.
Robert Heinlein was never conventional as a writer,
engineer or human being, but maybe that's why his works as still
so widely read and discussed. Throughout his life he refused to
be pigeon-holed into a certain role in society:
I am free, no matter what rules surround me.
If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too
obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone
am morally responsible for everything I do.- Robert A.
Links to Isaac Asimov
and Arthur C. Clarke
Copyright Lee Krystek
2007. All Rights Reserved.