Saturday, September 22, 2007

“Thank you Sir, for Everything.”

Art by Don Vassallo (Click for high def)

Robert Anson Heinlein -- The Man Who Created Our World

What is there to say about someone both so well known as Robert Heinlein, and so deeply personal as the writer who changed my life for good at age eight when I stumbled upon his books in the Tucson Public Library?

Heinlein led his field, writing the definitive book every step of the way. Modern technology from the space program to computing to the biology now opening up new worlds inside us -- the leaders of all these fields grew up reading Robert Heinlein. He changed who we are to the point we wouldn't be us without the old man's voice whispering or hitting us upside the head with a stick as needs be:

What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what 'the stars foretell,' avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable 'verdict of history' - what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!
His influence on modern technological thought is incalculable, simply because he taught damn near everyone who has amounted to anyone in the last thirty years in the hard sciences, to think for their own damn selves.

And we've not even begun to talk of his impact on writing.
Reason Magazine

His influence on science fiction almost goes without saying; when the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America chose their field's first Grand Master, Heinlein was the easy choice. But Heinlein was bigger than his literary genre. Following him could lead you to seemingly contradictory places, from the military to a free-love commune.

Heinlein venerated the armed forces, most notoriously in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, which celebrated an elite military order. Just two years later, he was publishing the counterculture classic Stranger in a Strange Land, with its simultaneously beatific, sexy, and heroic vision of Martian-inspired communal living.

Heinlein's novels and short stories reflected the rough-hewn anti-government but pro-defense message associated with Goldwater and the conservative movement he sparked. At the same time, his writings exuded the communal desire to live in blissful togetherness, ignoring the repressive sexual and religious mores of bourgeois America. With a libertarian vision that appealed to individualists of both the left and the right, Heinlein not only set the template for the American 1960s but helped create the looser, hipper, more pluralist world of the decades since.

Whether we're looking at post-Star Wars pop culture, post-Reagan politics, or the day-to-day tenor of our own lives in the Internet age, it's easy to see that while more literary novelists such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow enjoy high-flying critical reputations, it's Heinlein's fingerprints that mark the modern world.

Heinlein sold his first S.F. story in 1939 and almost instantly became the acknowledged king of his field, under the tutelage of legendary Astounding editor John Campbell. In the Campbell era, with Heinlein leading the way, the S.F. magazines moved from didactic travelogues and amateurish intergalactic epics to intelligent treatments of politics, religion, and sociology. Heinlein was also the first S.F. writer to break into respectable "slick" fiction magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post after World War II, and he spearheaded the first sober space travel movie, Destination Moon (1950), in which private enterprise-beating back objections from early advocates of a sort of "precautionary principle," who feared it was to unsafe even to try-makes it to the moon.

Most important, from 1947 to 1958 Heinlein wrote a series of S.F. novels for boys, published by Scribner's, that seemed to make it into every high school and elementary school library. From book to book their scope widened, starting with plucky, capable boys making a simple moon flight (Rocket Ship Galileo) and progressing across the solar system, presenting young men fighting revolutions on Venus (Between Planets), farming on Ganymede (Farmer in the Sky), navigating interstellar starships (Starman Jones), and finally defending the human race before an alien tribunal (Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

These coming-of-age adventure tales imagined an anti-xenophobic world in which aliens were lovable, inscrutable, and often wiser than men-although, for all that, occasionally dangerous. Those books lie close to the heart of almost everyone who went on to love or write science fiction, or to work to make its space travel dreams come true.

As the 1950s ended, Heinlein wrote a final boys' novel, Starship Troopers. Scribner's rejected it, finding it inappropriate for its intended youth market. It tells the story of a young man who finds his place in the world by joining the Mobile Infantry, going through the travails of training, and eventually fighting a war against sinister, implacable alien bugs whose ant-like lack of individuality was an unmistakable metaphor for communism.

The novel that arose from this sense of mission, Starship Troopers, strikes many readers as overly militaristic, bordering on fascist. The S.F. writer and Nation critic Thomas Disch wrote that the book caused "so many of [Heinlein's] critics" to pin a "totalitarian" label on him. (Disch kindly said that "authoritarian" is more apt.) Troopers posited that a ruthless military was an inescapable aspect of human civilization, and it presented approvingly a society in which only veterans of public service could vote.

Heinlein's detractors ignored the fact that military service made up only a small portion of that public service. The novel kept its occasional paeans to authority and discipline strictly within the military context, not meant to apply to all human relations. It also explained that active military men were not permitted to hold public office and were in fact held in low regard by the rest of the culture.

The choice to enter the service and earn the franchise was both voluntary and rare. The society in Troopers was, despite such a restricted democracy, one where "personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits." Still, Heinlein's insistence on the importance and glory of the military, and of often brutal discipline within that context, left him, as Disch wrote, "able to amaze and appall the liberal imagination like almost no other SF writer."

The anti-communist, pro-military message of Troopers might seem to suggest that Heinlein stood firmly on the right wing of the larger American individualist tradition. But Troopers appeared as Heinlein was in the middle of writing another novel, one that painted a very different picture.

The interrupted novel became his breakthrough both as a successful "mainstream" writer and as a public influence. It was Stranger in a Strange Land, about a human being raised by Martians who returns to Earth and begins a new religion of free love.

His name is Valentine Michael Smith, and he's brought back to Earth as a total naïf. He falls under the wings of a Heinlein stand-in, a popular fiction writer and curmudgeon named Jubal Harshaw. After many entertaining geopolitical machinations, lots of "everything you know is wrong"-style lectures from Harshaw, and a stint as a carnie, Smith starts a new religion which avers to each and every one of us that "Thou Art God."

Stranger became a slow-burning bestseller, presaging the collapse of traditional sexual and religious mores in the 1960s. It gave the counterculture vocabulary the Martian word grok, that very '60s term meaning really, really understanding something, man, so that you and it were, like, as one. The novel presaged, among other things, the rise of charismatic non-Christian popular cults such as Transcendental Meditation and Scientology. Through Harshaw's lectures and Smith's attempts to teach repressed Earthlings a more loving, open way to live, it opened up the minds of many readers to an observation from George Bernard Shaw that Heinlein adored: that only a barbarian "believes that the customs of his tribe are the laws of nature."

This one-two punch of curious, powerful novels seems to indicate two opposing strains of thought. But to Heinlein, these dueling visions-a world of sinister alien bugs fought off by powerfully disciplined soldiers, and a beatific Man from Mars teaching humanity how to love freely-had the same message, as he once wrote to his fellow S.F. writer Alfred Bester: "That a man, to be truly human, must be unhesitatingly willing at all times to lay down his life for his fellow man. Both [novels] are based on the twin concepts of love and duty-and how they are related to the survival of our race."

That iconoclastic vision is at the heart of Heinlein, science fiction, libertarianism, and America. Heinlein imagined how everything about the human world, from our sexual mores to our religion to our automobiles to our government to our plans for cultural survival, might be flawed, even fatally so.

It isn't a quality amenable to pigeonholing, or to creating a movement around "What would Heinlein do?" As Heinlein himself said of his work, it was "an invitation to think-not to be-lieve." He created a body of writing, and helped forge a modern world, that is fascinating to live in because of, not in spite of, its wide scope and enduring contradictions.
I've cherry picked the above article. It is well worth reading in full.

What there is to get is this: Heinlein believed in a world where love of each other, and taking personal responsibility for how the world turns out, come together. He didn't shirk his accountability either, demonstrating through his writing and life, that duty to the human race, lived one meeting, one book, one relationship at a time, was not only possible, but desirable. That the way to save the world is to start by saving your family, friends, and neighbors, while making the knowledge to do what you're doing available to all.

Robert Heinlein taught us to think for ourselves and to act for ourselves, come what may.

One of my most profound regrets is never writing Mr. Heinlein personally to thank him while he was alive. I didn't want to take up any of his time, you see. As a grown-up, now of course I realize all I would have need do was add, "no reply necessary", and his amazing wife, Mrs. Virgina Heinlein, would have been relieved of her iron social obligation to write back, which I knew I shouldn't impose on. (Even here, Mrs. Heinlein taught me a little social grace and to be respectful of others.) But it's okay... the old man knew who all of us were. He knew he got his work done.

I was managing a course on linguistics in Sacramento the day Mr. Heinlein died. It's one of three times as an adult I've cried uncontrollably. Tomorrow I'm posting a story Mr. Heinlein selected as one of his personal all-time favorites, a profoundly religious short story by Anatole France called “Our Lady's Juggler.” My son David's middle name is Anson.

Bring it home, Spider Robinson.
Heinlein Society

Rah, Rah, R. A. H.!
By Spider Robinson, ©1980

A swarm of petulant blind men are gathered around an elephant, searching him inch by inch for something at which to sneer. What they resent is not so much that he towers over them, and can see farther than they can imagine. Nor is it that he has been trying for nearly half a century to warn them of the tigers approaching through the distant grasses downwind. They do resent these things, but what they really, bitterly resent is his damnable contention that they are not blind, his insistent claim that they can open up their eyes any time they acquire the courage to do so.


How shall we repay our debt to Robert Anson Heinlein?

I am tempted to say that it can't be done. The sheer size of the debt is staggering. He virtually invented modern science fiction, and did not attempt to patent it. He opened up a great many of SF's frontiers, produced the first reliable maps of most of its principal territories, and did not complain when each of those frontiers filled up with hordes of johnny-come-latelies, who the moment they got off the boat began to complain about the climate, the scenery and the employment opportunities. I don't believe there can be more than a handful of science fiction stories published in the last forty years that do not show his influence one way or another. He has written the definitive time-travel stories (“All You Zombies—” and “By His Bootstraps”), the definitive longevity books (Methuselah's Children and Time Enough For Love), the definitive theocracy novel (Revolt in 2100), heroic fantasy/SF novel (Glory Road), revolution novel (The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress), transplant novel (I Will Fear No Evil), alien invasion novel (The Puppet Masters), technocracy story (“The Roads Must Roll”), arms race story (“Solution Unsatisfactory”), technodisaster story (“Blowups Happen”), and about a dozen of the finest science fiction juveniles ever published. These last alone have done more for the field than any other dozen books. And perhaps as important, he broke SF out of the pulps, opened up “respectable” and lucrative markets, broached the wall of the ghetto. He continued to work for the good of the entire genre: his most recent book sale was a precedent-setting event, representing the first-ever SFWA Model Contract signing. (The Science Fiction Writers of America has drawn up a hypothetical ideal contract, from the SF writer's point of view—but until Expanded Universe— no such contract had ever been signed.) Note that Heinlein did not do this for his own benefit: the moment the contract was signed it was renegotiated upward.

You can't copyright ideas; you can only copyright specific arrangements of words. If you could copyright ideas, every living SF writer would be paying a substantial royalty to Robert Heinlein.

So would a lot of other people. In his spare time Heinlein invented the waldo and the waterbed (and God knows what else), and he didn't patent them either. (The first waldos were built by Nathan Woodruff at Brookhaven National Laboratories in 1945, three years after Heinlein described them for a few cents a word. As to the waterbed, see Expanded Universe.) In addition he helped design the spacesuit as we now know it.

Above all Heinlein is better educated, more widely read and traveled than anyone I have ever heard of, and has consistently shared the Good Parts with us. He has learned prodigiously, and passed on the most interesting things he's learned to us, and in the process passed on some of his love of learning to us. Surely that is a mighty gift. When I was five years old he began to teach me to love learning, and to be skeptical about what I was taught, and he did the same for a great many of us, directly or indirectly.

How then shall we repay him?

Certainly not with dollars. Signet claims 11.5 million Heinlein books in print. Berkley claims 12 million. Del Rey figures are not available, but they have at least a dozen titles. His latest novel fetched a record price. Extend those figures worldwide, and it starts to look as though Heinlein is very well repaid with dollars. But consider at today's prices you could own all forty-two of his books for about a hundred dollars plus sales tax. Robert Heinlein has given me more than a Cnote's worth of entertainment, knowledge and challenging skullsweat, more by several orders of magnitude. His books do not cost five times the price of Philip Roth's latest drool; hence they are drastically underpriced.

We can't repay him with awards, nor with honors, nor with prestige. He has a shelf-full of Hugos (voted by his readers), the first-ever Grand Master Nebula for Lifetime Contribution to Science Fiction (voted by his fellow writers), he is an Encyclopaedia Britannica authority, he is the only man ever to be a World Science Fiction Convention Guest of Honor three times—it's not as though he needs any more flattery.

We can't even thank him by writing to say thanks—we'd only make more work for his remarkable wife Virginia, who handles his correspondence these days. There are, as noted, millions of us (possibly hundreds of millions)—a quick thank-you apiece would cause the U.S. Snail to finally and forever collapse—and if they were actually delivered they would make it difficult for Heinlein to get any work done.

I can think of only two things we could do to thank Robert Heinlein.

First, give blood, now and as often as you can spare a half hour and a half pint. It pleases him; blood donors have saved his life on several occasions. (Do you know the I Will Fear No Evil story? The plot of that book hinged on a character having a rare blood type; routine [for him] research led Heinlein to discover the National Rare Blood Club; he went out of his way to put a commercial for them in the forematter of the novel. After it was published he suffered a medical emergency, requiring transfusion. Surprise: Heinlein has a rare blood type. His life was saved by Rare Blood Club members. There is a persistent rumor, which I am unable to either verify or disprove, that at least one of those donors had joined because they read the blurb in I Will Fear No Evil.)

The second suggestion also has to do with helping to ensure Heinlein's personal survival—surely the sincerest form of flattery. Simply put, we can all do the best we personally can to assure that the country Robert Heinlein lives in is not ruined. I think he would take it kindly if we were all to refrain from abandoning civilization as a failed experiment that requires too much hard work. (I think he'll make out okay even if we don't—but he'd be a lot less comfortable.) I think he would be pleased if we abandoned the silly delusion that there are any passengers on Starship Earth, and took up our responsibilities as crewmen—as he has.

Which occasionally involves giving the Admiral your respectful attention. Even when the old fart's informed opinions conflict with your own ignorant prejudices.
The rest, Spider's best, is to read and you should. Also join the Heinlein Society.

All of Robert Anson Heinlein's life works are available to be read, and you should. The unabridged Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land. Glory Road, Starship Troopers, the Heinlein Juveniles, and the entire Future History series.

Oh what a treat. Rest in peace old man.

We'll keep working to be worthy of what you taught us.

Thank you Sir, for everything.

Edited to add:

A commenter mentioned Heinlein's great women characters. In reply I wrote:

Heinlein (and my mother) but really Heinlein, is where I take my flat-out assumption, that women are smarter, faster, quicker, tougher, nastier, happier, come more often enjoying it more, and are able to kick my ass at ever level, not to mention they should run the country.

Every woman character Heinlein wrote were superior to the men except in his Juvies although even there the girls weren't too shabby. His women are sexually free and the men followed their lead, not the other way around. I haven't read Stranger less than 250-300 times and it could easily be 500, 750 or more. It's on my list of three (non-technical) books to take to an island.

The man didn't teach me to treat women as my equal. I believe in every fiber of my being, women are my superior; Robert Heinlein said so with every book he wrote and with his most editorial voices. I've never seen the old man wrong about anything that counted, one of only two people I can say this about. If he says -- and he did -- women are superior, then that's just the way it is.

I've been living from within his assessment on the matter since I was in my teens, and I've seen nothing to contradict him yet. *smiles*

Will the rest of the world ever come around to realizing women are the more powerful sex? Hell, I have no idea. But in the meantime, it give me and those of us men who truly listened to Mr. Heinlein, one hell of an edge both in working with women, and in getting laid. Do you have any idea what an aphrodisiac it is to a hetro woman for her to know that the man she's with -- no slouch in his own right -- genuinely considers her stronger, more powerful, and deeply dangerous just by virtue of her being female, even before she starts getting points, foot and back rubs, and other special rewards for her own talents? *smiles*

Thank you yet again, Robert Heinlein. I've been getting action since I was twelve, thanks specifically to how your male leads treated, wooed, and were very freaking careful to respect women in Glory Road, Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger, and more.

You are the man... who writes the most fundamentally realistic women I've ever read.

Edited 9/23 to add:

The Heinlein Archives are now on line.
San Jose Mercury News

The complete archive of renowned American science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein will be made available online, thanks to an unusual partnership of the University of California-Santa Cruz and the Heinlein Prize Trust.

Heinlein, who lived in Santa Cruz for two decades, was one of the grand masters of science fiction. He became a pop icon in the 1960s with the publication of "Stranger In A Strange Land," one of the most successful science-fiction novels ever published. He died in 1988.

The entire contents of the Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Archive - housed in the UC-Santa Cruz Library's Special Collections since 1968 - have been scanned in an effort to preserve the contents digitally while making the collection easily available to both academics and the general public. The digitization project was the brainchild of Art Dula, director of the Heinlein Prize Trust.

The first collection released includes 106,000 pages, consisting of Heinlein's complete manuscripts - including files of all his published works, notes, research, early drafts and edits of manuscripts. The documents offer a window into Heinlein's creative process and provide background and context for his work.

Other collections soon to be added to the online archive will feature Robert and Virginia Heinlein's business and personal correspondence, scrapbooks, photo albums, and unpublished works, including communications with Heinlein's editor and agent.
The Robert A. and Virginia Heinlein Archive is now available for users. Prices vary. Educational use can be free, as can use to make space travel available.

Everything is coming on line folks. At is should.