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Monday Book Author Weblogging: Robert A. Heinlein

Jeet Heer has an excellent review of just why William Patterson's Heinlein biography is inadequate--with pointers as to how to do better:

Jeet Heer: William Patterson's Robert Heinlein Biography Is a Hagiography: "Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better...

...The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein once described himself as “a preacher with no church.” More accurately, he was a preacher with too many churches.... a beacon for hippies and hawks, libertarians and authoritarians, and many other contending faiths—but rarely at the same time. While America became increasingly liberal, he became increasingly right wing, and it hobbled his once-formidable imagination. His career, as a new biography inadvertently proves, is a case study in the literary perils of political extremism.... Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)... a counter-culture Bible... equally beloved in military circles, especially for... Starship Troopers (1959), a gung-ho shout-out for organized belligerence... an ode to flogging (a practice the American Navy banned in 1861) and the execution of mentally disturbed criminals, yet Heinlein became a hero to libertarians... The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress....

Heinlein... lived a large, complex, and contradictory life..... Heinlein was everything—like Walt Whitman.” The publication of the second volume of a mammoth Heinlein biography by the late William Patterson is, alas, only partially helpful in getting a grip on this complicated writer. Authorized by the Heinlein estate and fannishly worshipful, Patterson lacked sufficient distance from his subject to tackle the central puzzles of Heinlein’s life. 

Take, for example... political evolution... from... a left-wing New Dealer... to flirting with the John Birch Society in the late 1950s and supporting Barry Goldwater... yet he insisted that his politics were unwaveringly consistent. “From my point of view... both parties have moved steadily to the left,” Heinlein wrote.... Patterson, as was his wont on all major issues, sides with his subject.... Heinlein was no “rightist,” Patterson assures us, but a lifelong “radical liberal” with a “democratic soul.” Patterson never explains how that “democratic soul” came to believe that the right to vote should be severely restricted, a position Heinlein advocated not just in Starship Troopers but also in nonfiction works. Contra Patterson, Heinlein was not a lifelong liberal, and this biography offers little insight in the science fiction writer’s mad dash across the political spectrum. Weak tea as analysis, it nonetheless is a useful warehouse of facts...

Here is how I view it:

Robert A. Heinlein biographer William Patterson was a crazy man yelling at clouds:

The term “latchkey kid” had been coined in 1944—that is, during World War II—as a result of children being left alone and unsupervised while both parents were working (or a single mother was supporting the family while the father was in the armed forces). Children routinely left without parental supervision and both the restrictions and the feedback parents can provide often develop behavioral problems as a result of greater susceptibility to peer pressure in their teen years. Podkayne’s younger, sub-teen brother, Clarke, was already a behavioral problem, and Podkayne’s poor judgment Heinlein attributed also to her parents’ self-absorption in their own careers. It was not yet obvious to the public at large--though it appears to have already been a matter of concern to Heinlein—that “parenting” had completely collapsed in the United States during the 1950s, largely as a secondary consequence of the flight to the suburbs, which took the commuting breadwinner essentially out of the picture as a parent and trapped the children in an impoverished environment--at the same time (and at least partly for the same reasons) that education was collapsing as well. Antisocial self-involvement has become an endemic problem in this country as a result of this ongoing crisis...

A really crazy man yelling at clouds:

The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor, by Admiral Robert A. Theobald.... Roosevelt arranged for the Japanese to be pressured into declaring war on the United States and concealed (or engineered the concealment of) relevant diplomatic dispatches in order to make the incident happen... was, therefore, personally responsible for the carnage at Pearl, and for all the hundreds of thousands of American casualties in the war. The situation was much more complex than even Theobald knew about in 1954.... Japan was being oil-starved by its Axis allies.... The Final Secret of Pearl Harbor painfully shook Heinlein loose from his personal attachment to the memory of his Roosevelt...

How is it, exactly, that Germany and Italy--half the world away, separate from Japan by Russia, British-controlled India, and the British-controlled Atlantic and Indian oceans--"starved" Japan of oil? How is it, exactly, that Roosevelt "pressured" Japan "into declaring war"? Japan never declared war: Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack. How did Roosevelt "make the incident happen"? The Japanese war cabinet, the IJN high command, and Kido Butai "made the incident happen".

A really, really crazy man yelling at clouds:

Separate but equal had been standard doctrine throughout much of the United States since 1890. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 eliminated separate but equal from all areas of public accommodation. The idea of racially integrated high school classes would have been shocking in 1954...

In 1954 schools were legally integrated in Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode, Island, and Maine. The idea that a class might contain people of different races was shocking only in the South.

But, then, in his later years his biographical subject Robert A. Heinlein was also a crazy man yelling at clouds. 1964:

There have been some sharp break points, too. One was the day on which the full story on Pearl Harbor finally came out—and I’ve had no use for FDR since. Another was a day in Jugoslavia when I watched American tanks being handed over to Tito. Oh, there have been many other things—the Alger Hiss case, Operation Keelhaul, our forgotten Korean War prisoners, Castro and our State Department, Aid to Dependent Children and the “professional” relief client...

Full story on Pearl Harbor? Objecting to obsolete surplus WWII Sherman tanks being sent to Yugoslavia to make it more difficult for the Kremlin to execute a Budapest 1956 or a Prague 1968 against Belgrade? Aid to Dependent Children? From a man who drew a government disability pension off of a long-ago resolved TB infection? A great deal does not compute.

A nasty, crazy man yelling at clouds. Also from 1964:

I’m sick of bailing out Kremlin murderers with wheat sold to them on credit and at tax-subsidized prices, I’m sick of giving F-86’s and Sherman tanks and money to communists, I’m sick of undeclared wars rigged out not to be won—I’m sick of conscripting American boys to die in such wars—I’m sick of having American service men rotting in communist prisons for eleven long years and of presidents (including that slimy faker Eisenhower!) who smilingly ignore the fact and do nothing, I’m sick of confiscatory taxes for the benefit of socialist countries and of inflation that make saving a mockery, I’m sick of signing treaties with scoundrels who boast of their own dishonesty and who have never been known to keep a treaty, I’m sick of laws that make loafing more attractive than honest work. But most of all I am sick of going abroad and finding that any citizen of any two-bit, county-sized country in the world doesn’t hesitate to insult the United States loudly and publicly while demanding still more “aid” and of course “with no strings attached” from the pockets of you and me. I don’t give a hoot whether the United States is “loved” and I care nothing for “World Opinion” as represented by the yaps of “uncommitted nations” made up of illiterate savages—but I would like to see the United States respected once again (or even feared!)… [sic] and I think and hope that the Senator from Arizona is the sort of tough hombre who can bring it about. I hope— But it’s a forlorn hope at best! I’m much afraid that this country has gone too far down the road of bread and circuses to change its domestic course (who ‘shoots Santa Claus’?) and is too far committed to peace-at-any-price to reverse its foreign policy...

A scared, nasty, crazy man yelling at clouds. From 1957:

The United States is today in the greatest peril in its history and I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years--and I am convinced that our present terrible peril has been brought on in large measure by weak-stomached ladies of both sexes, tender-minded creatures who fear fighting more than they fear slavery.... Alice, the.. time is very short, we may have lost already, and I don’t ever want to pull my punches again.

OK: so why does this matter?

Maybe it doesn't. But there is this from 1955:

[Science fiction] is not a sub-genre of adventure fiction (even though many of the tales in it are adventurous)… This field is concerned with new ideas, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things… which is precisely why it is so attractive to young people and so little read by older people, i.e., read only by those who have kept their minds young. Now if a story does not take the cultural framework we live in, stretch it, twist it, turn it upside down and examine it for leaks, rearrange the parts and see how they would relate in a new arrangement—in short, explore possibilities and play games with ideas—it is not really a story of this genre at all but merely a western translated into the wider open spaces of the stars...

And this from 1941:

We here, the science fiction fans, are the lunatic fringe! We are the crazy fools who read that kind of stuff—who read those magazines with the outlandish machines and animals on the covers. You leave one around loose in your home and a friend will pick it up. Those who are not fans ask you if you really read that stuff, and from then on they look at you with suspicion. Why do we do it?... It is because science fiction has as its strongest factor the single thing that separates the human race from other animals—I refer to a quality which has been termed “time-binding”... we are able to make records, to gather data and to look into the future.... The child-like person lives from day to day. The adult tries to plan for a year or two at least. Statesmen try to plan for perhaps twenty years or more. There are a few institutions which plan for longer.... Science fiction, even the corniest of it, even the most outlandish of it, no matter how badly it’s written, has a distinct therapeutic value because all of it has as its primary postulate that the world does change.... During a period of racial insanity, mass psychoses, hysteria, manic depression, paranoia, it is possible for a man who believes in change to hold on, to arrest his judgment, to go slow, to take a look at the facts, and not be badly hurt.... The important thing is to hang on to your sanity, to preserve sanity while it happens....

Possibly the greatest of the science fiction writers: H. G. Wells. Wells perhaps didn’t do a good job of it—good Lord!... But H. G. Wells... tried to draw for the rest of us a full picture of the whole world, past and future, everything about us, so we can stand off and get a look at ourselves...

Lois McMaster Bujold writes somewhere that--after trying to combine mystery and science fiction, and romance and science fiction--that while romance novels are fantasies of love and mystery stories are fantasies of justice science-fiction stories are fantasies of political agency: how we can can act, and change the world for the better. I would add that this agency springs from how the future is different from the present--springs from technological and sociological changes that make things different and open new possibilities. It performs, or can perform, the function of learning how to live in the future, which--since we are going to--is something we need to learn.

Heinlein had that in 1941. He still had it in 1955. But by 1964 he had lost it. He no longer imagined and tried to live in the future. He greatly feared it--and feared the then-present as well. As Jo Walton says somewhere, far from being in dialogue with his century, after 1960 or so it seemed as though he and it were no longer even on speaking terms.

Why did he lose it? How did he lose it? When did he become so scared of the future (and the present!) that he stopped trying to imagine and live in the future?

That is what I want a Heinlein biography to tell me: why, how, and when did he lose it? And Patterson's biography cannot tell me that because Patterson appears never to have had it to begin with...

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