Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century

Science fiction is a literary field crowded with strong opinions, and no SF novelist delivered himself more memorably of his views — on politics, sexuality, religion, and many other contentious topics — than Robert Heinlein. Conversely, opinions on the author of Stranger in a Strange Land and many other masterpieces tend to run…hot. But no would-be expert should be allowed to post an opinion on Robert Heinlein — pro or con, labeling him saint or sinner — without having read all 1,000-plus pages of William Patterson’s masterful and essential biography of the man. It would help, of course, to have also actually read all of Heinlein’s fiction — though even that exercise unfortunately does not confer perfect objectivity. But I defy anyone who truly engages with Patterson’s meticulously researched, empathetic, exuberant, and exhaustive biography to emerge without a deep comprehension of and, yes, sympathy with the man at its center. Whether you go into the book loving or hating Heinlein, you will emerge with your perspective refined and more solidly anchored, and possibly even turned upside down.

Of course, Heinlein’s life story is already well known in its bare outlines by most hardcore fans of science fiction. Birth in 1907 into a quintessentially formative midwestern milieu; early naval career; premature retirement for health reasons; an almost accidental entry into fiction writing, due to economic necessity; grooming by editor John W. Campbell; revolutionary work and attainment of master status during the Golden Age; graduation to mainstream and Hollywood recognition during the 1950s; pioneering landmarks in the nascent young adult category; new controversial highs and lows in the 1960s; debilitating health problems conquered and a resurgent late-life career of somewhat problematic and even ostensibly solipsistic and self-parodic works; death at age eighty as the “dean of science fiction” and first SFWA Grandmaster. But Patterson’s two-volume study explodes, amps up, highlights, colors, overturns, and shades these unnuanced tidbits into a tapestry of meaning, a breathing portrait of the whole man. In a metaphor that Heinlein himself, that old satyr, might endorse, the difference between knowing the outline of Heinlein’s life versus reading Patterson’s account is the difference between imagining sex and having it.

Learning Curve, the first of two volumes, begins, naturally enough, in “The Heinleins of Butler, Missouri,” with Heinlein’s parents and associated relatives. (An appendix covers earlier generations.) Patterson’s sympathetic grasp of his subject’s midwestern origins is tangible in this Sherwood Anderson–style portrait. Heinlein’s birth finds our protagonist clearly and firmly embedded in a long-vanished but once-dominant familial and socio-cultural matrix. We watch his early interests and character traits develop, chart his youthful enthusiasms in literature, love, and duty. Then comes a very long period where the navy is the all-consuming center of Heinlein’s life, both as stressed cadet and competent sailor. Patterson exhibits a detailed and convincing knowledge of the rigors and practices of the military during this period. Out of this crucible emerges the adult sensibility that would be stamped on Heinlein’s later fiction — as well as the first vague stirrings of literary ambition.

By Chapter 12, with Heinlein some twenty-five years old, he encounters Leslyn MacDonald, who was to become his second wife (after a barely consummated, quickly terminated, and impulsive puppy-love first marriage). Patterson brings Leslyn colorfully alive as Heinlein’s spiritual and intellectual equal. Soon married, the couple is thrown for a loop by Heinlein’s tuberculosis and medical discharge. Then commences an unsettled civilian life in which our hero dabbles in higher education, joins the progressive political campaign of Upton Sinclair, and encounters the world of science fiction fandom, the penultimate blossoming of his long fascination with the genre.

His true writing life gets underway with a failed novel, (For Us, the Living, since printed posthumously), a sale to John Campbell at Astounding, and a swiftly burgeoning career. World War II finds the writing put aside for national service in a Philadelphia lab, with fellow authors Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. L. Ron Hubbard and rocket scientist (and occultist) Jack Parsons stride on and off the stage. Postwar comes a crisis: divorce from an increasingly alcoholic, depressed, and mean-spirited Leslyn; falling in love with Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld; artistic trials and triumphs; and — the culmination of Patterson’s Volume 1 — marriage to Ginny, a partnership that would anchor the rest of Heinlein’s life.

Throughout, Patterson gives us a truly complex, frequently self-contradictory Heinlein. If the Mount Rushmore–scale figure of the man has become a flashpoint, reduced by his friends and enemies to a shorthand list of “good” or “evil” tags, Patterson’s presentation shatters all the cant and received “wisdom.” We see Heinlein as conflicted son, as earnest and charming lover and sensualist, as dedicated military man, as aspiring artist, as desperate striver for solvency, as patriotic citizen, as science proselytizer, as futurist and fanboy. There can be no one-dimensionality about him any longer, given Patterson’s careful attention to all his manifold aspects. (And here it should be mentioned that Patterson does a fine job with his synopses and exegeses of Heinlein’s various fictions.)

One of the main humanizing factors is the contrast between the often overlooked and forgotten “early years of bitter struggle” and the picture today that many people have, of Heinlein sitting atop the bestseller heap, fully fledged as a privileged and dominant figure. It is much harder to resent a forty-year-old, divorced, struggling writer in ill health who cannot afford to give his new wife thirty cents for bus fare than to feel ire at some imaginary overlord of the genre.

In Chapter 22 comes the revelation of the central engine of Heinlein’s life, the motive force that informed all his actions.

I haven’t anything that could properly be termed a religion…  The nearest thing to a religious feeling I have, and, I believe, strong enough to justify calling it a religious feeling, has to do with the United States of America. It is not a reasoned evaluation but an overpowering emotion. The land itself as well as well as the people, its culture in the broadest most vulgar sense, its history and its customs…

Patterson opens Volume 2 with a repeat of this quotation, affirming its centrality. Besotted with the idealism of the USA’s national enterprise, however often the principles of the nation were traduced and betrayed by reality, Heinlein indeed governed his actions by fealty to the notion of American culture as a model for humanity’s future.

But Patterson’s emphasis on his subject’s fervent patriotism is offset by aspects of Heinlein’s life that utterly destroy the false notions that he was some kind of hard-line conservative or hidebound reactionary. From incidents as simple as the courtesy paid to an African-American bellhop to his insistence on “diversity” in his characters, we see a man who treated everyone he met with an initial respect that his interlocutors could then either affirm or betray by their responses.

Volume 2, The Man Who Learned Better, feels indeed like a new phase in Heinlein’s life. Patterson makes the point that our subject’s “learning curve” had reached a kind of apex, although there were sharply instructional experiences hard ahead. Heinlein goes to Hollywood, to help make the landmark film Destination Moon, and that task provides insights into the dream factory and how to reach the general public. More important, a round-the-world tour opens Heinlein’s eyes to the irreducible complexity of global politics and tempers his Wellsian optimism. (A later trip to the USSR will do even more along these lines.)

Heinlein’s burgeoning success with YA novels brings both rewards and frustrations, as he must meet editorial fiats inconsistent with his own artistry and ideology. Crucially, we witness the conceptual birth, in 1949, of what would — after many false starts, stallings-out, and wanderings — become his most famous book, Stranger in a Strange Land. And we also witness the development of Heinlein’s multi-stranded approach to social commentary with both egalitarian and libertarian views woven into his fiction, often in unpredictable ways. Interracial romance in Tunnel in the Sky; a Filipino hero for Starship Troopers. (The large controversy engendered by the militarism of the latter is well explored.) The controversial racial allegories and satire of Farnham’s Freehold are explicated and justified. Chapter 25 contains another core belief, delivered in one of his letters: “Anything at all between two or more freely consenting adults is good, and is no damn business of government, of neighbors, of churches, or anyone else…”  Heinlein was a contrarian bomb thrower par excellence, and his prescient denunciation of political correctness in Chapter 13 goes a long way toward explaining some of the hostility he’s engendered today.

Patterson limns the turbulent “crazy years” of the 1960s with the same skill he deployed for the early 1900s. Several key novels emerge from Heinlein’s typewriter during this era: The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Glory Road, and Podkayne of Mars, the latter, with its female teen protagonist, revolutionary for the day.

As the decade culminates in the first lunar landing and Heinlein’s ecstatic televised celebration of this goal he has worked toward for so long, extreme medical trials plague both him and Ginny, and we share their suffering. In the midst of this, Heinlein managed to complete I Will Fear No Evil, and Patterson’s treatment of this pivotal novel brings out its overlooked postmodernism (and what now looks like a more obvious predecessor to the metafictional antics of his late-’70s novel The Number of the Beast). Who would have dreamed Heinlein admired both John Barth and the Vladimir Nabokov of Ada?

One cardinal trait that emerges in Patterson’s rendition of Heinlein’s life is his catholicity of friendship and his generosity to those who had a claim on his heart. This is chronicled at several points, but perhaps nowhere so vividly as in the mutual-admiration society he conducted with Philip K. Dick, on the surface the least likely of authors to consort with the bogeyman “fascist” that Heinlein was deemed to be by those dwelling in the darkness of their own prejudices. Paying the tax bills of a bankrupt PKD, Heinlein continued the largesse he had lavished on folks such as Theodore Sturgeon and the nascent Science Fiction Writers of America in the past.

The final decade of Heinlein’s life (he died on May 8, 1988) saw five novels from his pen — or early word-processor, actually. Patterson gives them, and the naturally somewhat tamped-down, scaled-back activities of the elderly but game Heinleins, as thorough a rendition as the earlier, more seminal works. I always count that full measure of attention paid to the endgame as one of the marks of a good biography.

In the full retrospect afforded by this project, Heinlein’s life can be seen as an utter victory of will, ambition, character, and talent. Not many authors manage to title their final book To Sail Beyond the Sunset and have it issued as they lie dying. The arc of his life mirrors some kind of American fairytale. (Heinlein loved the “Little Tailor” motif.)  He knew love, success, honor, and self-satisfaction. He left a legacy that continues to inspire. He gave much, and received much in return.

No review of this project would be complete without a note lamenting the passing of the biographer. Just on the eve of the publication of the second volume, William H. Patterson passed away at the too-youthful age of sixty-three. Like Heinlein’s hero Delos D. Harriman in The Man Who Sold the Moon, Patterson died just in sight of his promised land, having given his all in a courageous manner that his subject would surely have applauded.