Heinlein – fascist…?

June 24, 2014

ddb 371-14

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948
William H. Patterson Jr

According to Michael Moorcock (“The Opium General”) “Golden Age SF (was) written by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov and A.E. Van Vogt wild-eyed paternalists to a man, fierce anti-socialists, whose work reflected the deep-seated conservatism of the majority of their readers, who saw a Bolshevik menace in every union meeting. They believed, in common with authoritarians everywhere, that radicals wanted to take over old-fashioned political power, turn the world into a uniform mass of ‘workers’ with themselves (the radicals) as commissars.”

I must confess that as a young man I read and enjoyed Heinlein’s fiction. But what the hell, eh? Those halcyon days of youthful innocence (ignorance?). Sure, Starship Troopers set some alarm bells ringing when it was published – here was our young cadet hero learning that duty is obedience, that wars will happen come what may, that the military always knows best. And kill the alien before he sticks it to you!

Yeah, even back then, its easy going militarism was reminiscent of Hitler’s Wehrmacht on a day trip to Paris – the whole presented in a most seductively attractive but simplistic way.

But still I read on, you know? After all a man capable of writing, “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity”, couldn’t be all bad in my book!

Mr Moorcock, though, offered the following advice for approaching Heinlein:

“Next time you pick up a Heinlein book think of the author as looking a bit like General Eisenhower or, if that image isn’t immediate enough, some chap in early middleage, good-looking in a slightly soft way, with silver at the temples, a blue tie, a sober three-pieced suit, telling you with a quiet smile that Margaret Thatcher cares for individualism and opportunity above all things, as passionately in her way as you do in yours. And then you might have some idea of what you’re actually about to read.”

Oh, dear. This view from a young, energetic anarchist of one of his contemporary SF greats, is disturbing. But is it altogether fair?

I mean I could sit here and poke holes in the man’s work, could explain how the symbolism of Ludmilla Davis’ demise (Moon is a harsh Mistress), slain during the Revolution and her remains used to fertilize the family’s flower garden, is as subtle as a smack in the mouth with a pix-axe handle. The absurd, annoying speech patterns; the made up words, for Grok-Sake. But that doesn’t mean Heinlein didn’t accomplish much that’s worth recalling.

Tunnel in the sky, for example, one of Heinlein’s “juvenilia” and one of the first of his works I read. The fantasy Glory Road which I first read as a serial in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction – Sam R Delany called it “endlessly fascinating…” And but for Simak’s “Way Station” it would have won the Hugo for best Novel that year!

Not, you understand, I’m claiming this to be great literature. No. What I’m saying is this fifty year old pulp adventure is pure escapism – it’s FUN, boys and girls.

Same too with The Puppet Masters. Parasite aliens taking over our bodies. Yeah, go for it! So are the aliens symbols for the REDS waiting to take over society? Who the hell can say – and frankly, who gives a damn?

In fact the list of Heinlein works I’ve read and enjoyed are too numerous to mention just now.

Anyhow, the reason for this post is my recent acquisition of The late William H. Patterson Jr’s two volume biography:

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol. 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948

Robert A. Heinlein, Volume 2: In Dialogue with His Century: 1948-1988: The Man Who Learned Better

I’ve only read Volume One, so can’t comment on Volume Two (but no doubt I will later). That said, any attempt to recount Heinlein’s life is going to be of interest. Mr. Patterson had access to Heinlein’s files at the University of California and the cooperation of Heinlein’s widow, Virginia and the members of the writer’s extended family. He had more information to work with than any previous biographer.

Here we are able to observe how certain themes and ideas in his writing were formed and developed in boyhood. Strange to recall that the young Robert rode in a buggy round the Missouri countryside with his grandfather – then went on to become one of the strongest advocates of spaceflight ever! Fritz Lange of Metropolis fame convinced Heinlein to write his “juvenilia”. However there is a hagiographical tone at times to this work, and the reader can’t help but feel things are being left out…

So for anyone interested in Heinlein, the man, I’d give Volume One a big thumbs-up. For Volume Two there’s a good review HERE.