RETRO DAYS: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN and SPIDER ROBINSON

Figure 1 – Spider & Jeanne on Bowen Island

I apologize; this week’s column should have come out last week. So my careful numbering scheme will again have to be modified. But onward! Let’s talk about Robert A. Heinlein (RAH). Specifically, let’s talk about Spider Robinson (Figure 1) and RAH. As most of you know, Spider, working from notes left by RAH, “co-wrote” the novel Variable Star. It was very well received—I, too, liked it a bunch—and I wondered: just what was the relationship between Spider and RAH? (I myself, only spent a couple of hours with “The Master” back in the mid-1970s, courtesy of Seattle’s PSST-Con II or III and Kelly Freas, a good friend.) So—hey, you’ll never know till you ask, right?—I said to Spider, “Just what was the personal relationship between you and RAH? Did you visit him a lot, did you mail or phone him (remember, Heinlein died pretty much when email and cell phones as they are today were sort of in their infancy) a lot? Here’s what Spider had to say in response (this part, though published in part elsewhere, is copyright ©2017 by Spider Robinson):

***

My classic story is: once back in the mid-‘70s, Jeanne and I were up against it. About to be evicted. Broke. No money even owed us. I hadn’t even told my agent how desperate we were. Two days before eviction day, an envelope arrived in the mail. Return address, Bonny Doon Road, Santa Cruz. Inside was a cheque for the exact amount of our rent—how did he know?—plus a few hundred extra for circus money, with Robert’s signature at the bottom. And a note: “Something tells me your credit is bent. I hope this helps. RAH.”

I had his phone number, because we had worked together extensively on his contribution to my anthology THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS. I called him and stammered something about repaying him at standard interest— He cut me off. He said Jeanne and I could repay the money if we chose, though it wasn’t necessary and shouldn’t be soon—but the Heinleins did not accept interest from friends. He added that his own preference would be for us to “pay it forward”—literally the first time I had ever heard that now-clichéd phrase—to someday help out another colleague who needed it. That I am happy to say I have done.

The night I met him and Ginny, the night he was given the first-ever GrandMaster Nebula by SFWA (the longest standing ovation of my experience. I had to perform on guitar that night with seriously damaged hands.), I approached him with my mouth open, trying to make words come out. Before I could select any, Jim Baen introduced me, and Robert stuck out his hand and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Spider. Does that Callahan’s bar really exist? I’d love to go there.” At that point memory goes blank for awhile. I do remember having the wit to try to kiss Ginny’s hand, and the luck to pull it off. (I was single, then.)

One other thing sticks in memory about that night, though. Before he arrived, I overheard much smug gossip that Robert was surely going to cut Joe Haldeman a new one, for “ripping off STARSHIP TROOPERS.” Joe heard enough of it to turn green. When Jim Baen introduced them, Robert pumped Joe’s hand and told him in a loud voice that FOREVER WAR was the best science fiction novel he’d read in years. Joe floated away, beaming like the Cheshire Cat.

After I sang that night, Robert and Ginny asked me to send them a copy of the Jake Thackray album LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT, from which I had sung a selection, “Ulysses.” That was the start of a long and profoundly pleasant correspondence. Often, not always, Ginny would do the typing, but she always quoted things Robert had said. When Robert was in the mood to type, the letters got a lot longer.

And very shortly after Robert’s passing, fate brought Ginny and Jeanne together in a way that….

Jeanne wrote about it for a Zen Buddhist journal. Let her tell it:

Figure 2 – 6000 Bonny Doon Road [Google Street View]

Going Home With Ginny
© 2007 by Jeanne Robinson

One of the many reasons Spider and I decided to move across the continent from Halifax to Vancouver was that there were shrines in California to which each of us hoped we might make frequent pilgrimages.

In Spider’s case the shrine in question was the Heinlein home on Bonny Doon Road in Santa Cruz. He did manage to visit his shrine—exactly once—and wouldn’t you know it, it was closed that day.

That’s right: the only time he managed to put together the spare time and spare cash, by evil luck he arrived on a day when Robert’s health crashed and he didn’t feel like receiving guests after all. If you’re ever curious to know what Moses looked like as he stared helplessly past the razor wire at the Promised Land, I can show you a photo of Spider, standing outside the closed front gate of Bonny Doon, trying to smile.

And then Robert and Ginny moved to Carmel, and then Robert died.

Two months later, I finally got to visit my own shrine…and ended up stumbling into Spider’s. Without him!

I am a lay-ordained Zen Buddhist monk. There are more different flavors of Buddhism than there are of Christianity, or Islam.  The Tibetan Buddhists are probably the best known in North America at this time—pretty much everyone has heard of the exiled Dalai Lama. My group are of Japanese lineage, the particular branch called Soto Zen—that is, farmer Zen, as opposed to Rinzai or warrior Zen. Their main headquarters in North America is the San Francisco Zen Center, on Page Street, which was founded in the early 1960s by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, a Japanese abbott. Suzuki Roshi also founded two other temples, outside the city. One, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, is right on the coast, just north of the city by Muir Beach.

The other is a remarkable monastery called Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a place of terrifying beauty with a wonderful hot spring, tucked high up in the Santa Lucia mountains near Jamesburg. It’s so remote and inaccessible that the only sane ways up there are by helicopter (which would be difficult to land) or by taking their specially equipped four wheel drive “stage coach” up a 14-mile one-lane dirt and rock road that features at least a dozen perfect places to plummet two miles, and at least one unexpected new one every trip. You leave your own ride at the base of the mountain, and return to it when you’ve had all the peace and quiet and stunning vistas and wholesome food you can stand up there.

In July 1988, I finally managed to put together the time and just enough money to fulfill a lifelong dream and become a guest student—that is, to spend several weeks at the Tassajara Monastery, immersed in intensive meditation, dharma study and work practice. I had planefare, tuition and pocket change, period. A sweet cousin in San Francisco, Ralph Parsons (long dead now—God rest you, Ralph) kindly drove me from the airport to the stagecoach terminus at Jamesburg. Tassajara took care of all my needs (and then some!) for the next few weeks.

Then on the last day of my stay I learned by phone that something urgent had come up for Ralph, and he would not be able to pick me up after all. I would have to walk or hitch many miles along the Carmel Valley back to Monterey airport, and hope I made it in time for my flight.

Then I happened to remember I had the phone number of someone else I knew in the area…well, sort of knew…who lived only a few miles away, in fact: in Carmel.

Virginia Heinlein.

I hesitated for a long time before dialing the number. Ginny had met my face exactly once, in the midst of a Worldcon at which her husband was the Guest Of Honor. Furthermore, Robert had died only two months earlier, in May.

Finally I worked up the nerve, called her, explained my situation, and asked if Ginny could possible pick me up at Jamesburg and get me to the airport. The next morning, only moments after the stagecoach dropped me off at the foot of the mountain, this huge vehicle pulled up driven by this tiny woman…and she basically drove me home with her and fed me lunch, and then sort of collapsed on me.

We spent hours together. Ginny wept, and spoke movingly of Robert and their years together and his passing and the sharpness and strength of her grief. I did my best to help absorb her pain, share her sorrow, pass on some of the healing energy I had just spent the last few weeks charging myself full of up on the mountain. Mostly, I held her and listened until she got herself centered again. Whereupon she proceeded to thank me with an extremely intensive half-hour Master Class in how to run a writer’s business for him, upon which I have drawn ever since, bless her.

And she gave me the Dollar Tour.

Poor Spider went crazy pestering me for details when I got home. I did my best, but doubt I could have satisfied him with color video in surround sound. Robert was his teacher, the way Suzuki Roshi was mine. Still, anything I did recall sent him into transports of joy.

I got to sit in Robert’s desk chair. I put my fingers on the keyboard of his word processor. I don’t know what kind. I saw his discharge from the Navy, hanging on the wall above it. I saw, and touched, the famous Cannon. I saw his Hugos, and the Grandmaster Nebula that Spider had watched him accept decades earlier in New York. Ginny showed me photos, and original manuscripts, and souvenirs of world travel with Robert, and she showed me around the last home they had shared. I saw the bed on which he had died.

And then it was time, and Ginny fired up that enormous car again and drove me to airport in time to catch my flight. When I got home to Vancouver…well, let’s just say I was thoroughly debriefed.

Spider has since been to Tassajara himself—it’s a fabulous place to visit for a day or a week even if you have no interest in Buddhism. (See http://www.sfzc.org/tassajara/) But by then, Ginny had moved all the way across the continent to Florida, and was once again as expensively far away as she had been when she and Robert were in California and Spider and I were in Nova Scotia. Both of us corresponded with her regularly, and spoke with her often on the phone, but never again found ourselves in the same room with her.

Figure 3 – Variable Star Audio Book cover

I hope this gives you, dear reader, some insight into not only the Robinsons’ relationship with the Heinleins, but also what kind of people all four are and were. Several people can testify to the fact that RAH was sometimes a diva and egotistical in public—but we all have our blind spots, and I think he was, like all humans, a complex person. Heinlein was always, for me, the person whose writing I loved the most (with John D. MacDonald coming a close second); he was usually quite didactic in his prose, but that’s one of the things I liked most about his writing. It’s been said that the Golden Age of Science Fiction is 14; I encountered Heinlein much earlier than that in my life, but he was always there to tell me something I didn’t know. And to entertain me at the same time. Some people forget that the “first principle” of fiction—and of science fiction & fantasy—is to entertain. Heinlein never forgot that.

Though I never made the pilgrimage, I was also the recipient of a number of missives from that Bonny Doon address (Figure 2); in the late 1970s I was chair of a new convention in Moscow, Idaho (the group putting it on was originally based in Pullman, Washington, about 8 miles away, but Pullman had no hotels that could host an SF convention), MosCon by name. We had chosen RAH as our primo guest of honour, and he had accepted. But as the con got closer, Heinlein’s health deteriorated. Because he knew one of the consequences of his declining health might have meant he couldn’t attend, he asked us to consider another GOH, from Leesburg, IN, one Verna Smith Trestrail, in his place. Why? Who was Verna Trestrail, besides a grade-school teacher? Well, going back a bit, RAH told us, a certain SF writer—Elmer E. Smith, Ph.D., had graduated from the University of Idaho way back when, and Verna was his daughter. Until that particular letter arrived, we’d had no notion that E.E. “Doc” Smith, author of The Skylark of Space series, as well as The Lensman series, had gone to U of I. Fortunately for us, Verna turned out to be a wonderful guest, and our association with her lasted the rest of her life. Unfortunately, RAH was too ill to attend the convention, but he wrote a memoir for our program book, titled “Larger Than Life.” (That memoir was later published in Expanded Universe.)

Last Words: it has just come to my attention that, in addition to the zillion other awards he has received over his so-far brilliant career, Robert J. Sawyer has been awarded the 2017 Robert A. Heinlein Award, “For outstanding published works in science fiction and technical writings to inspire the human exploration of space,” by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS). (This award is partially funded by a grant from the Heinlein Society, and the winner is brought to Balticon for the award. Spider and Virginia Heinlein are among the previous winners of this award.) So please join me in congratulating Robert!

If you can, please comment on this week’s column. If you haven’t already registered, please register and comment here. Or you can comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Your comments are all welcome. Please don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment; my opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other columnists. See you next week!

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5 thoughts on "RETRO DAYS: ROBERT A. HEINLEIN and SPIDER ROBINSON"

  1. stevefah says:

    My friend Steve Schlich chimed in (I’m posting for him for reasons that will be obvious):
    I registered with Amazing so I could write a comment, and then was told I had to register with DISQUS or some other website to comment! Steve, that is BULLSHIT. So here’s my comment:

    I never met RAH (or Spider) but I do have a story. I had just joined an SF club and at their first meeting confessed that I was unhappy with a good deal of RAH’s writing–and they invited me to never return.

    The thing is: I greatly admire Heinlein as a writer precisely because he kept creating characters that I despised. The lawyer in Stranger from a Strange Land (I forget his name) infuriated me. And I found myself throwing The Moon is a Harsh Mistress across the room because of something a character did.

    Consider that: words on a page, not real people. And yet they got me mad enough to shout at them. That is one hell of a writer. Thank you, mr. Heinlein, for pissing me off so much!

    Steve Schlich

  2. mdj says:

    Indeed! Great article, Steve! I have heard Spider Robinson sing “Ulysses” in person and that is a real treat. He encouraged me to try to find some Jake Thackray albums, (though I never managed to).

    1. stevefah says:

      Thanks, Mike. I still haven’t either. It’s in my “todo” stack right under all those round tooits.

  3. R.Graeme Cameron says:

    Great article! Wonderful blast from the past. Reminds us all that it’s not just the fans who form a fraternity.

    1. stevefah says:

      Thanks, Graeme! We’re all part of that great SF fraternity/sorority!

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