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The "Dean of Science Fiction Writers"



   Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri in 1907. His family moved from Butler to Kansas City, where he was to grow up, a few months after his birth. His family was large (four boys and three girls) and relatively poor. All the Heinlein kids worked from an early age to help support the family.

   He was himself the kind of prodigy that shows up in a number of his stories --playing chess at the age of four and having read every book on astronomy in the Kansas City Public Library (which is quite a big library) by the time he started high school [at the same high school my older brothers and older sister attended]. Astronomy had become his consuming interest with the appearance of Halley's comet in 1910 and he was already delivering public lectures on astronomical subjects in his early teens. His classmates at Central High School voted him "worst boy grind" as he expanded his interests to include mathematics at a level that went beyond the high school curriculum.He also participated in the school's theatrical society, captained the debate team, and was a Major in the high school ROTC. At the age of 16 he read his first science fiction story and read every piece of SF he could lay his hands on thereafter.


     A year of college at Kansas City Junior College followed high school graduation. He then entered the U. S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, following his older brother who was at Annapolis. At Annapolis, he continued to excel in his academic studies. He also found time to compete in marksmanship and fencing. In 1929, he graduated 20th in a class of 243 (fifth in academics), and was commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy.

   Not much is known about his Naval career nor about the marriage and divorce (the first of two divorces in his lifetime or maybe the second of three) that occurred during it. In 1933 he contracted tuberculosis and, as a result, was retired from the Navy with the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade.

   After a brief attempt at silver mining in Colorado, Heinlein decided to continue his education and enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles for graduate work in engineering and mathematics. But he withdrew from UCLA after only a few weeks. That was followed by an assortment of jobs, none lasting for long.

     What did hold his interest was politics. He joined the EPIC ("End Poverty in California") Democratic Party organization founded by novelist Upton Sinclair. Following Sinclairs defeat for the California governorship in the 1934 election, Heinlein helped reorganize the Party and became one of its principal leaders and editor of the EPIC News with a circulation of 2 million subscribers. In 1938, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state legislature.

     At a loose end and broke, he decided to become a writer in reponse to an announcement published in Thrilling Wonder Stories encouraging submissions from new and unpublished writers. This wasn't his first attempt at writing -- in 1937 he had written a polemic novel titled For Us, The Living that he decided was unpublishable. Over a four-day period, he wrote the story "Life-Line" and, deciding it was too good for Thrilling Wonder Stories, sent it instead to the higher quality Astounding Science Fiction.

     Astounding's legendary editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., was in the process of reshaping the entire genre of science fiction. Campbell was actively mentoring a stable of young writers -- including Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, Theodore Sturgeon, and A. E. Van Vogt -- teaching them to write stories that met his definition of SF as a story that might appear in a mainstream or adventure magazine in the future. In "Life-Line," Heinlein had written just the type of story Campbell was looking for, without any mentoring at all. Campbell bought it immediately at Astounding's full rate of $70 -- good money in those days. This was the beginning of a lengthy collaboration between the two men, who were to become giants of the "golden age" of SF.

   Heinlein became particularly known for his "Future History" stories, which all took place in the context of a future timeline Heinlein had imagined stretching from approximately World War II through the first explorers to the planets and beyond. This conceptual framework may not be the equal of Tolkien's creation of Middle Earth but it is a similar act of literary creation on a vast scale. The Future History is comprised of short stories and novellas written between 1939-1942 and 1946-1950, plus one written in 1962, and the novel Time Enough for Love written in 1973. Each publication stands on its own as a complete story but they are linked by a shared background of events and technology, with one story sometimes referring to events or a character from another. Many of these were eventually gathered together in edited collections, such as The Green Hills of Earth (1951).


     Most of his stories not on the Future History timeline were published under the name Anson MacDonald. He also published under a number of other names. One of his most famous stories, "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag," was published as by John Riverside.

   The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Heinlein tried to reenlist in the Navy, but was rejected for medical reasons. An old Navy buddy, however, was able to get him a position as a civilian engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station at Mustin Field, near Philadelphia where he worked on classified research through the war years.


     Within a week after the end of the war, Heinlein resigned and returned to writing. Attempts at non-fiction writing, expressing his concern over the threat of nuclear weapons, were largely unsuccessful, as was a book titled How To Be A Politician. He was much more successful with his fiction. In particular, he was increasingly successful in publishing stories in non-genre outlets, including Boys Life and The Saturday Evening Post, which was the highest-paying and most prestigious magazine in the country at the time.

     In 1947, he published Rocket Ship Galileo, the first of an annual series of popular boys' books, timed for the Christmas market, that appeared from 1947 thru 1958. These "juveniles" finally gave Heinlein the income and wider market presence he had longed for. The second of these "juveniles," Space Cadet, provided the basis for the 50s TV show Tom Corbett: Space Cadet. Podkayneof Mars (1963) was promoted as Heinlein's thirteenth "juvenile" because the protagonist is an adolescent girl but it was originally intended as an adult novel and has generally been less popular with young readers than the twelve boys books. Any of Heinlein's "juveniles" makes perfectly good reading for adults and, for that matter, most of his adult books are read with pleasure by young SF fans.

     My personal favorite among the juvenile novels is Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) which has been compared to Rudyard Kiplings novel Kim. When I suggested this in my senior year high school English class, I thought it was an original assessment but Ive since learned that many others have made the same comparison. Personally, I believe that Heinlein and Kipling shared many traits as writers and that Heinlein was at least as fine a writer as the Nobel Prize winning Kipling. Unfortunately, the Nobel Committee appears to be have been consistently biased against genre fiction, hence no Nobel Prizes for Heinlein, Asimov, Zelasny, Tolkien, King, Hammett, or a good many other genre writers whose work is of higher quality, in my opinion, than a lot that has won the prize.

   In 1948, Heinlein wrote a screenplay titled "Destination Moon." It was purchased by special effects innovator George Pal and scheduled for production in the summer of 1949. Production was delayed as the script was re-written and re-re-written, until Irving Pichel was hired on as director, and he re-wrote it one more time. Heinlein served as a technical consultant and apparently played a major role in shaping the final production. The first Hollywood science-fiction project to take a serious look at the possibilities of manned spaceflight, George Pal's film chronicled, in meticulous detail, the planning and launching of an imaginary first lunar expedition. Based on a final screenplay co-written by Robert A. Heinlein, Rip Van Ronkel, James O'Hanlon, and Irving Pichel. Directed by Irving Pichel, with special effects by George Pal based on the artwork of Chesley Bonstell, it starred Warner Anderson, John Archer, Dick Wesson, and Erin O'Brien-Moore.

     Destination Moon was a box office success and something of a critical success but due to its joint financing with an unsuccessful Jimmy Durante comedy, it made Heinlein very little money. Considered by many to be the first modern science fiction film, Destination Moon won an Academy Award for its special effects and was nominated for Oscars in the categories of art direction and set direction.

     In 1951, Heinlein published The Puppet Masters, an exciting invasion-of-Earth novel, that I thought would make an excellent movie when I first read it. In 1958, the makers of the movie The Brain Eaters, simply pirated most of the story. Heinlein sued and the producers settled just before the trial would have commenced. The settlement included an unknown amount in monetary damages and the right to specify cuts in the movie that eliminated the most obviously stolen elements. The more recent production, Robert Heinlein's The Puppet Masters (1994), suggests that I had underestimated Hollywood's ability to wreck a good story. If you want to enjoy some good old-fashioned Fifties style menace from outer space excitement, read the book, dont waste your time on the fairly awful movie.

     In 1959, Heinlein's publisher refused to publish his novel Starship Troopers, which Heinlein felt conveyed a strong anti-communist message, but which many others felt was an expression of neo-Fascism. Starship Troopers was serialized as "Starship Soldier" in The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction in October and November 1959, and the book was released by Putnam's that December. Despite the outrage it inspired in many fans and critics, it was awarded the Hugo Award, SFs highest honor, at the 1960 World Science Fiction Convention. Disturbing and reactionary though many of its ideas are, Starship Troopers is an exciting novel and it does what science fiction does at its best -- challenges its readers to re-think their basic assumptions.

    The 1997 adaptation, Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, was a major disappointment. It was a special effects extravaganza but it translated little of the substance of the novel to the screen. Heinlein's political ideas do largely get expression in the film, but little else does. There are some good performances along with impressive SFX but not enough to make up for the film's deficiencies. Heinlein's creation of the Mobile Infantry -- his idea of the fighting man of the future -- is debased into a pretty ordinary special forces-type outfit that lacks both the weaponry and the esprit de corps of the solders in the novel. And the military incompetence of these supposedly elite forces is astounding, and quite unlike anything in the  novel. Verhoeven may have been aiming at a satire -- of the military, of bureaucracy, maybe even of SF -- but this production fails as either satire or serious SF.


      One project Heinlein worked on off-and-on during the Fifties was based on an idea suggested in 1948 by his third (or maybe fourth) wife for a twist on Kiplings The Jungle Book. Her idea was that instead of being an infant raised by wolves, the Mowgli character of this story would be an Earthling raised by Martians. Over time the Mowgli story had several working titles, including "Gulf," "A Martian Named Smith," and "The Heretic."

     In 1960, these ideas came to fruition when he completed an 800 page draft for a novel with the working title "The Man From Mars". This was nearly triple the average length for a novel at the time. Heinlein's publisher didn't know what to do with his massive manuscript. It was unlike anything Heinlein had ever written before. Not only was it extraordinarily long, but it was an iconoclastic satire of politics, sex, and religion -- dangerous topics to satirize at any time, but especially dangerous then. There were also name games and private jokes embedded throughout the story.

     At first the publisher insisted that Heinlein cut out all the sex and religion. Heinlein refused and eventually the publisher agreed to publish it if he simply cut it down to a manageable size. Heinlein edited the manuscript down from 220,000 words to 160,000 words still twice as long as the average novel. In 1961 it was published under the title Stranger In a Strange Land. The result was a brilliant novel and the introduction of the word "grok" into the English language.

     At first, sales of Stranger In a Strange Land were unexceptional. Sales improved somewhat after it won Heinlein his third Hugo Award in 1962. In 1963, however, sales of the Avon paperback issue of Stranger In a Strange Land moved into bestseller status, as the book was taken up by what would come to be known as the "counterculture." Heinlein was amazed to find that it had gained a cult following and that he had become a sort of guru to many young people who he could scarcely have disagreed with more strongly. As the book continued to grow in popularity, a number of filmmakers approached Heinlein with the idea of making it into a movie, but nothing ever came of any of the proposed films. Rumors of a Stranger In a Strange Land movie continue to circulate more than four decades later, with the latest suggesting that Tom Hanks and Sean Connery are going to appear in a big budget version.


     His next book, Glory Road (1963), was a sword-and-sorcery epic -- a genre Heinlein had not previously written in. Being Heinlein, he brought a new perspective to sword and sorcery with this tale in which a Vietnam veteran is recruited to serve as a  hero in multiple alternate universes. It has been years since I read it last, but as a youth I enjoyed it greatly. Heinlein collaborated on a screen adaptation of Glory Road, but, as with so many attempts to bring his vision to the movie screen, nothing came of it.
     An omnibus of the Future History stories, The Past Through Tomorrow, was published in 1967 and that same year Heinlein won his fourth Hugo Award, for The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, a story of revolution on the moon that is another politically significant novel by Heinlein. Heinlein continued to write and publish nearly until his death in 1988. Personally, however, I didn't care much for the work of this later period, when his novels tended to start out with a tight, well developed plot but then degenerated into rather indulgent philosophical fantasies. Weak endings had been a problem with some of his earlier novels but it seemed to become much worse as he reached the end of his career. Several posthumous volumes have been published since his death.

     His unpublished utopian novel For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Manners was finally published in 2003. Borrowin a form that had been used before him by Bellamy, Wells, and others, For Us, The Living showed Heinlein's political and economic concerns and the same sort of inventive world-building he had later applied to his future history series. While the ideas are quite interesting and many appeal to me greatly, as a story it is weak, with characters I could not believe in.