Hoyt On Heinlein - My Heart Belongs to Daddy

In July Tor.com invited me to participate in a blog event to launch the first volume - Learning Curve - of William Patterson's Heinlein biography.

(For those who aren't science fiction fans, this sporadic and irregular series of posts will all be called "Hoyt on Heinlein" with the added subtitle. So if you wish to scroll on past, that's fine.)

After hesitating for a long time because the man's influence in my life made this seem akin to reading about your father when he was young and stupid, I read the book through twice and marked all the interesting places I'd like to talk about. In a way Heinlein's history was the history of the 20th century in America, at least for that subset of the population that was interested in speculation and intellectual work. In a more precise way, it was the history of science fiction at the time. And because science fiction is the way we think about the future, it provides fascinating material for exploration.

I made all my final notes on it on the way from NASFIC in August and wrote out some questions I'd like to explore. Then I wrote an introductory, opening post.

And that was the last thing that went according to plan.

At this point I'm tempted to say "It wasn't the site, or the other bloggers, or even the commenters, it was me." To an extent that is true. As some of you who have read me here have probably gleaned, I can be somewhat excitable. I hate to live up to the stereotype of the excitable Iberian woman (or is that a stereotype here?) but stereotypes have a base in reality. In things I care deeply about, I can get very hot under the collar, and dish hot sarcasm freely left and right. (Quite literally.)

But there was more to it than that. No, it wasn't the site or the other bloggers, or even the commenters. But it was Heinlein.

Heinlein discussions and panels, in cons, over dinner, and in blogs, always make me think of the Biblical injunction "I come not to bring peace, but a sword."

There are people like that. People the mere mention of whose name divides the most peaceable assembly into two camps at each other's throats. In Heinlein's case, this is perhaps only true within science fiction where some of us grew up reading him and consider him our Alma Pater, who molded us as much or more than our biological parents. "Heinlein's Children" is the name we have proudly arrogated and we try very hard to live up to daddy's expectations. (I count it as a very high point in my life when, some years before she died, Mrs. Heinlein reassured that Robert would be proud of having me for a daughter. No award, no accolade - not even, I suspect, Roman style deification, were that available - would be considered comparable to that.)

And then there are the Heinlein haters. There are people who read a line or two of Heinlein and hate him, there are people who read all his works and hate him and there are - bafflingly - a multitude of people who have never read him and who hate him with a burning passion. I'd like to believe those last are in the majority, (because I have trouble in all his work, people don't find something to like) but I don't know of course.

Most of the people who hate him without ever having read him have heard he is racist, sexist, fascist or any other "ist" they care to call him. And in most cases this relies on such a distorted view of his writings it would be perfect for Myth Busters.

My theory is that a lot of movements who want their members' complete unthinking obedience are very afraid one of them will slip up and read Heinlein - because to read Heinlein is to think and question more than anything else.

Now, I'm not saying the man was perfect. No more than I am, with my er... excitability. No, he was rather a man of strong opinions (but able to change them) who therefore offended large portions of people at any given time. Which is what makes him so important. And what makes him so polarizing in an age of "I have the right not to be offended."

So, my blogging at Tor.com got derailed. A co-blogger decided to complain about the lack of gay people (!), blacks, women, etc. in leading roles in his books - which at this point cover up to about the 40s when editors had trouble with such 'minorities' as Italian and Irish -- and I lost my head, and I'm afraid allowed it to destroy my train of thought. There were other factors, including the fact that I was battling something physical, but that's irrelevant. A reason, but not an excuse.

At any rate, I did not do my best work, and it bothers me, because Patterson's own work is masterful and deserves a better analysis. And because those of you who have read me have probably spotted I will set three or four books or three or four stories in the space era/space. This is because I hate to waste research. And here, I have ALL these notes and the book marked up, and didn't get into any of the topics I planned to cover.

So, I propose to do a series of blogs here. Eric said it was fine, even though - as someone said on my facebook - the internet consists mostly of Heinlein flamewars and porn. (He forgot cute cat pictures and stories, which are a good quarter of the net, but correct in the essentials.)

Because of my somewhat excitable nature (kind of like Vikings - who did raid the region I come from - were a little bit violent) I'm going to exert something I learned from the book, what Heinlein apparently called "a semantic pause". It's not that I'm going to ignore comments, but I might not go back and answer (those that interest me) until I have the whole series out. Since the series will be fitted in around my fiction-writing commitments, it might take a while.

People are, of course, welcome to engage in arguments in the comments, but if I do wade in, it will sidetrack my entire thought process again. Sorry - I do this in full knowledge of my limitations and character defects. Trust me, the blogging will be better for my not getting into hair pulling.

And now, fasten your seatbelts and put on the fire-proof suits. Hopefully I'll be able to make the way ahead interesting and worthy of the subject.

posted by Sarah on 09.14.10 at 11:11 PM


I read through your posts over at Tor and I was also infuriated at the treatment that RAH gets. Anyone who has read through his works knows that he was one of the most inclusive writers of his time. To carp about a lack of different minority checkboxes is simply to show a huge heaping mound of ignorance. One of the things that gets me is that other writers of the same period are almost never given that same treatment. That suggests to me that people are looking for reasons to attack RAH that have nothing to do with their criticisms.
Thanks for fighting the good fight!

Peder   ·  September 14, 2010 12:36 AM

I look forward to reading the entries.

I also would consider that RAH is my "Alma Pater" (love the term). In no small part, he is the reason I am an engineer and a libertarian. And, yeah, his influence on my children is significant also.

Fritz   ·  September 14, 2010 3:12 AM

Patterson, isn't this about Heinlein?

Alan Kellogg   ·  September 14, 2010 8:04 AM

The problem with the "Alma Pater" thing (yes, a marvelous coinage) is that it limits you in ways I don't think RAH himself would approve. Heinlein was deeply embedded in his time, and without reference to others, equally deeply embedded in that milieu, it's not only possible but inevitable that you will use flawless reasoning to reach wrong conclusions.

In particular, unless you have internalized Vonnegut and E.F. Russell you will have no way to recognize or appreciate opposition to RAH's notions on valid grounds; Russell's lighter stuff appears to run parallel to Heinlein's, but elsewhere he explores some of the darker crannies, and Vonnegut's apparent opposition becomes an odd sort of reinforcement on closer study. The one to look at, though, is Vance. Vance's work is often dismissed as light adventure with no coherent core, but anyone who would name a star-spanning polity "Oikumene" has depths of subtlety that reward deeper investigation.

Many of my formative ideas came from Heinlein, and he remains one of the best introductions to that particular philosophy in existence -- but everything needs a cross-check and cost accounting, and RAH is no exception. I reckon he would say the same himself.


Ric Locke   ·  September 14, 2010 11:13 AM

Wonderful. I'm bumping your post to today's date so no one will miss it!

Eric Scheie   ·  September 14, 2010 12:39 PM

Wait a minute - I know you from LJ! How is it that I have been reading here for (God knows how long) and just now realized who you are?

I look forward to these posts. I too love RAH, with reservations.

Kizmet   ·  September 14, 2010 2:13 PM

I always wanted to be a Starship Trooper. And later a Jedi.

And BTW where is the local Michael Valentine Church? I need to do some serious worship.

M. Simon   ·  September 14, 2010 2:20 PM

Fellow RAH fan here, who sees a lot of RAH in the young Welsh writer Alastair Reynolds.

Captain Ned   ·  September 14, 2010 2:26 PM

So the Tor.com clique kicked you out for not adhering to orthodoxy?

Trimegistus   ·  September 14, 2010 4:57 PM

Sarah - You may find this post of interest.

(The Seattle Times reviewer, Nisi Shawl, replied over at Sound Politics, but never corrected her errors. She is, among other things, a minor science fiction writer)

Jim Miller   ·  September 14, 2010 10:24 PM

Isn't the hero of "Tunnel in the Sky" himself black? He doesn't make a big deal of it, but if you read carefully, it's clear.

Charles   ·  September 15, 2010 11:11 PM

Sorry, that was a response to the Shawl post.

Charles   ·  September 15, 2010 11:16 PM

Actually, Heinlein did something a little more daring than have a black protagonist in "Tunnel in the Sky." The male narrator is pretty clearly white. He is also the alpha male in the story. The alpha female -- with whom it is implied he has a relation -- is black. So Heinlein, in a juvenile written in the 1950s, has a inter-racial couple. Pretty cool.

I figured that out back in the 1970s reading the book in my teens, and wondered how he got away with doing that. Yeah, its a feature by the 1980s, but in the 1950s it was taboo.

Mark L   ·  September 16, 2010 4:29 PM

Charles is right, IMHO. Here's the final clue, near the end of the book: The protagonist, Rod Thorn, is asking his sister Helen, the former Amazon assault captain, to help the Zulu girl, Caroline Mshiyeni, get into the Amazons.

Rod says: "Well, yes. And she is number-one officer material. She's a big girl, evne bigger than you--and she looks a bit like you."

So, Zulu Caroline is black, and looks like Rod's sister, Helen. Therefore, Helen and her brother Rod, are also black. Probably

There are other hints in the story; as I recall, Rod doesn't have Jimmy's sunburn problem.

Mark L - There aren't any hints in the story that Rod and Caroline are involved, and he explicitly denies that in the same scene where he is recommending her for the Amazons.

Jim Miller   ·  September 16, 2010 8:00 PM

Just for the record I started reading Heinlen when I was 10 years old and I found a copy of Rocket Ship Galaleo at the libary. This was in the mid fifties, have enjoyed everything he wrote . Wish reencarnation was for real cause I still want more of his stories..

deucy   ·  September 22, 2010 5:57 PM

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