I have neither the expertise nor the patience to do a thorough or exhaustive critical work on Robert A. Heinlein; it’s my intention instead to perhaps expose him to an audience which hasn’t had all that much experience of him, being raised—perhaps—on a diet of Harry Potter, Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and the like. Although I appear to be deviating from my “Heinlein’s YA Books” idea, it’s only temporary, and I’ll wander in and out of focus—much as I do when thinking! Remember also, while reading this, that I don’t claim the expertise in either writing or critical analysis that would allow me to call myself a “critic.” I’m a science fiction reader (and writer), an enthusiast—and sometimes an apologist. Reviewer, yes. Critic, not so much.
But, you may ask, what is the relevance of Heinlein’s YA (or Juveniles, as they were originally called) books to today’s youth? Nobody in them has a cell phone with Bluetooth or wireless, much less a computer or notebook/netbook. Heck, there’s not even a music channel (like VH1 or MuchMusic) on the TVs, even if those TVs are giant wall screens. Heinlein did think there’d be 3D TV—but he thought you’d have to have a “tank” (like a big goldfish tank) for it. He also thought the future would be using microfilm and wire recorders. (For those of you who’ve never heard of a wire recorder, they predate—going back to WWII—the tape recorder, using a thin wire to record onto; it magnetized similar to tape. My next-door neighbour in Florida, in 1961, had one; I thought it was way cool and played with it whenever he’d let me. This was before cassettes, even.)
But anyway, “His YA stuff’s not current, dude!” I hear you cry. Well, even though some of the guesses as to what the future would be like are way, way off-base, the people are more or less the same. Some of the societal issues are different, too—women are seldom in positions of power; there are few non-white people (and those who do appear are usually not from North America) and there are seldom gender issues. (Transgender people do appear much later in RAH’s writing—sympathetically portrayed—but not in any of his early YA fiction.) Women are often portrayed as older people who can’t keep up with either the pace or the knowledge of a “modern” technological society. So why should a modern young person read this stuff?
My answer is that knowledge—especially of the recent past, sociologically—is never wasted. Although the customs and morés of our society may be altered, it helps to know how people used to (as recently as fifty years ago) talk, act and think. And Heinlein makes that learning painless, in the same effortless way his characters teach us things about what is now surely an alternate future society. Where there is science, some of that is dated too; but the basics of science don’t change. Young people and older people still interact, and fiction—especially Heinlein’s fiction—is a good way to teach yourself (just by reading and absorbing) how people interact with each other. Besides, and I can say this after rereading most of the YA books very recently, they’re fun to read!
Anyone wanting to know more about Robert A. Heinlein will invariably run across the book by Alexei Panshin called Heinlein In Dimension, from Advent Publishers. (The full text of said book is available on the author’s website, but in my opinion—whether you agree or disagree with Mr. Panshin, it would be good of you to buy a copy either from the author or from Advent, Amazon or any other place it’s on sale—links are clickable above.) For many years this book has garnered both positive and negative critical comments and, reportedly, made RAH himself furious. But before you assign any blame without reading said tome, let me say that RAH himself was, when he felt like it, a “crochety old” fellow, in my opinion, prone to getting mad whenever he felt if was justified—it’s well known that when even long-time friends disagreed with him he was perfectly capable of never speaking to them again (after writing, judging from one letter I received from him after a very minor “transgression,” a pretty snarky letter).
But to my mind, that just proved that Heinlein was human; we all have some clay in our feet, whether that’s what they’re made of or not. (For an extreme example, look at Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, Season 3, episode 5 (2005), “Holier Than Thou,” in which they take on Mother Teresa, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. Warning—and the title of the series ought to be a clue—Penn Jillette really likes to swear, and he throws extra profanities into each episode just for fun, thus rendering these shows NSFW [Not Safe For Work].) So what was Panshin’s transgression? Well, you’d have to go back a few years when Panshin was a college student. He wrote a critical analysis of some of Heinlein’s works for a term paper (receiving an “A”), and sent same to Heinlein, and they corresponded for a while. Because a group of SF writers had written a letter to a major newspaper calling for a ban on nuclear testing, Heinlein—who felt, apparently, that without nuclear weapons we would be at a disadvantage when dealing with the Soviet Union—helped form what was called “The Patrick Henry League.”
I’ve forgotten the exact sequence; whether this was before or after Panshin was in the Army; he apparently spent some time stationed in Germany, and while there found that from a “front-line” perspective the Cold War was quite boring, leaving him time to write, something he’d always wanted to do. After Heinlein’s (and a number of other SF writers’) rebuttal to the “no nukes” letter was published (I think it was a full-page ad in the New York Times), Panshin wrote to RAH, asking whether this stance could be justified in the face of both modern scientific knowledge (the effects of radiation, etc.) and modern geopolitics. From reading some of Panshin’s published opinions, it appears to me that around the time he left the Army and returned to the US he had formed the opinions that a) the US had been the agressor beginning with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and b) we were, in fact, the imperialist threats not only to the Soviets, but to the rest of the world. Of course, opinions like these—whether expressed as such in his letter(s) to Heinlein or not—would hardly endear Panshin to RAH. (He also expressed the opinion in something I read—can’t remember where—that Heinlein was determined, from his fiction, to carry this macho attitude to the stars.)
Heinlein wrote him the curt equivalent of “buzz off, kid, you bother me.” I can’t remember where I read the letter, but his version of Panshin’s actions and Panshin’s own version are diametrically opposed. All this information is available on the ‘net, by the way, so you can form your own opinion of the interactions. So Panshin and Heinlein were already estranged by the time Panshin published Heinlein In Dimension, which contains not only reviews, but critical analyses of Heinlein’s life and works, divided into periods, thus: The Period of Influence (1940 – 1942); The Period of Success (1947 – 1958); and The Period of Alienation (1959 – 1967) (remember that this book was written in 1968, so nothing later appears in it). Panshin also has sections detailing his views on Heinlein’s story construction, content and style; he finishes the book with sections on Heinlein’s non-fiction and his future. (Panshin’s stated opinion—as of 1968—is that Heinlein will, like Rudyard Kipling, be read primarily in the future for his “kids’ books.” He says, “Today, Kipling is principally read by children — if any of his work is neglected, it is that which was written specifically for adults. Kim, “Captains Courageous,” The Jungle Books, and Puck of Pook’s Hill are the Kipling that continues to live. In the same way, if Heinlein becomes neglected, I think it is his work for adults that will suffer. I have no doubt that Red Planet, Starman Jones, and Have Space Suit–Will Travel will continue to hold readers for a good many years.”)
While it may be that, thanks to Disney, The Jungle Book is the book many people think of first when they think of Kipling, that doesn’t hold true for either me or my wife; our first thought is The Man Who Would Be King, a stellar adult story as well as a movie (1975) by John Huston starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as well as Christopher Plummer as Kipling himself. The movie is absolutely faithful to the book, and if you have never seen it, you owe it to yourself to do so. (I also think of Gunga Din, a poem made into a movie (1939) by George Stevens.)
It may also be that Panshin’s opinion of Heinlein’s future has changed in the 46 years since the publication of Heinlein In Dimension; since his own fiction has now been published—starting with Rite of Passage, a book that won a Nebula and was a finalist for the Hugo—as well as more critical books and other fiction (the Anthony Villiers series) written alone as well as with his wife, Cory Panshin, he now understands that you can write characters, settings and situations that don’t in any way reflect your own viewpoints, conscious or unconscious.
Most of Heinlein’s juveniles are sexless; that is, there is little or no romance in them, although there are both male and female characters. For the most part, the female characters are either stepmothers or stepsisters (example: in Farmer In The Sky, the protagonist, Bill Lermer, heads to Ganymede to settle, with his stepmother and stepsister.) Heinlein’s more adult books, later, dealt with sex—and the societal dance around sex—in a different fashion. According to Panshin, “It seems to me that the sum of the examples I have given so far, typical of Heinlein before his third period, is that all are naive, sentimental, clichéd, uncritical, implausible, and life-not-as-experienced. I would say they were the result of an internalization of romantic ideals that we mouth but don’t really observe.” Your mileage may vary; I find I disagree with many of Panshin’s conclusions about Heinlein when he wanders from review into critique.
But that’s okay with me; as I’ve said before, I’m no critic—and I often disagreed with, for example, the movie critics Siskel & Ebert—I’m just a writer and reviewer. When I make a statement of opinion I tend to say, “Hey, it’s just my opinion.” When a critic says something, he or she appears to be making a statement of fact. (To return to Kipling for a moment, didn’t he also say, There are nine and sixty ways/Of constructing tribal lays/And each and every one of them IS RIGHT! ? Or words to that effect.) Anyway, you should be aware that there are many people both attacking and defending Heinlein. Spend a little time with Google or Bing; do a little bit of reading outside the confines of this column, and you might be surprised at what kinds of things you may find out—and opinions you may read!
Please comment on this week’s entry. To do so, you can either register here, if you haven’t already—it’s free, and only takes a moment—or comment on my Facebook page; or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. All your comments—positive or not—are welcome! Feel free to disagree; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners. See you next time!