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Robert A. Heinlein

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Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907May 8, 1988) was one of the most influential authors in the science fiction genre. He developed new themes, new techniques and approaches. He became the first science fiction writer to break into major general magazines in the 1940s and 1950s with true, undisguised science fiction, and the first bestselling novel-length science fiction in the 1960s. Amongst many other awards, he was the first to receive a Grand Master Nebula of the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Table of contents
1 Life
2 Works
3 Ideas and Themes
4 Bibliography
5 External links
6 Further reading


Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, but spent his childhood in Kansas City, Missouri, in the early years of the 20th century. This was a time of great religious revival across America, especially socially marginalized areas such as Missouri. The outlook and values of this period would influence his later works; however, he would also break with many of its social mores, at least on an intellectual level, frequently portraying them as narrow-minded and parochial.

After high school, Heinlein attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduating from the Academy in 1929, he served as an officer in the United States Navy until 1934, when he was discharged due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During his recovery he re-invented the waterbed. The military was the second great influence on Heinlein; throughout his life, he strongly believed in loyalty, leadership, and other military ideals. This attitude permeated his fiction, most prominently (and controversially) in the novel Starship Troopers. His 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land was the first science-fiction book to become a national best-seller — readers who as a rule did not read SF books were interested in Heinlein's philosophy, as expressed in that novel, which transcended what was seen as the usual scope of such novels at the time, preoccupied with robots, flying saucers, and bug-eyed monsters.

After his discharge, Heinlein audited classes in mathematics and physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, but did not formally enroll. He also worked in a series of odd jobs, including real estate dealership and silver mining. Heinlein was active in Upton Sinclair's socialist EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement in early 1930s California. When Sinclair gained the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 1934, Heinlein worked actively for the campaign (which was unsuccessful). Heinlein himself ran for the California state assembly in 1938, which also was unsuccessful (an unfortunate juxtaposition of events had Konrad Henlein making headlines in the Sudetenlands). While not destitute after the campaign — Heinlein had a small disability pension from the Navy — he turned to writing to pay off his mortgage, and in 1939 his first story, "Life-Line", was published in Astounding Magazine. He was planning on retiring as soon as he held his mortgage party, but wanted a new car, a trip to New York, and a few other things. He then told John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, that he was planning to quit. He made an agreement to send a few stories he had on tap but that he would quit writing when Campbell bounced a story. When Campbell bounced a story, he quit and started to feel unwell. He became jittery and absent-minded, suffered loss of appetite, weight loss, and insomnia. He thought this might be the onset of a third attack of pulmonary tuberculosis. Campbell eventually dropped him a note, and when reminded of the conditions, said he would take another look at the story. He did so and asked for some very minor edits. When Heinlein sat down to do those edits, he suddenly felt better.

During WWII he served with the Navy in aeronautical engineering, then returned to writing. During his time there, he recruited a young Isaac Asimov to work at Mustin Field, where he wrote the first two books of the Foundation Trilogy. He also got L. Sprague de Camp yanked from the naval commission he was headed for, to work there as well.

In the early 1970s, Heinlein suffered a series of strokes. Heinlein credited his recovery to the support of his wife Virginia and improved medical technology that he saw as "spinoff" from space technology. He went on to write several more bestsellers.


Early Works, 1939-1960

Heinlein's first novel was , written in 1939 and not published until 64 years later, after a copy was discovered in the garage of a person who had been assigned to write about Heinlein as a graduate student. Although it is a failure as a novel, being little more than a disguised lecture on Heinlein's social theories, it is intriguing as a window into the development of Heinlein's radical ideas about man as a social animal, including free love. It appears that Heinlein at least attempted to live in a manner consistent with these ideals, even in the 1930s, and had an open relationship in his marriage to his second wife, Leslyn.

After For Us, The Living, he began writing novels and short stories set in a consistent future history. A large portion of his work during the period from 1939 to 1961 consisted of juvenile novels. There has been speculation that his intense obsession with his privacy was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children, but For Us, The Living also explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle.

Heinlein originally wrote his first published book, Rocket Ship Galileo, because a boy's book was solicited by a major publisher. The publisher rejected it because 'a trip to the moon was preposterous'. He took the manuscript to Scribner's, who bought it - and started a chain of options resulting in a yearly Christmas trade book. This agreement lasted for twelve years, until the editor (who hated science fiction) rejected a manuscript, which Heinlein then took across the street and for which he later won a Hugo.

The novels that he wrote for a young audience are a fascinating mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have much more to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually very intelligent teenagers who have to make a way in the "adult" society they see around them. They are simple tales of adventure, achievement, dealing with dumb teachers and jealous peers. The books "Have Space Suit, Will Travel", "Farmer in the Sky", "The Rolling Stones" are most representative of this type.

However, Heinlein was outspoken with editors and publishers (and other writers) on the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle complex or difficult themes better than most people realized. Thus even his juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that make them readable for adults. Indeed, his last "juvenile" novel was Starship Troopers, which is also probably his most controversial work. Starship Troopers was written in response to unilaterally stopping nuclear testing. Even a relatively innocent book such as Red Planet portrays some very subversive themes, including a reenactment of the American Revolution by young students; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as guns and the confused sexuality of the Martian character.

Robert A. Heinlein with a pen in hand, b/w photograph

Mature work, 1961-1973

From about 1961 (Stranger in a Strange Land) to 1973 (Time Enough for Love) Heinlein wrote his most characteristic and fully developed novels, exploring his most important themes, such as individualism, libertarianism, and physical and emotional love. To some extent, the apparent discrepancy between these works and the more naive themes of his earlier novels can be attributed to his own perception, which was probably correct, that readers and publishers in the 1950s were not yet ready for some of his more radical ideas. He did not publish Stranger in a Strange Land until long after it was written, and the tropes of free love and radical individualism are prominently featured in his first novel, For Us, the Living, which was written in 1939 but not published until 2003.

Later work, 1980-1987

From 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987 (To Sail Beyond the Sunset), Heinlein, in poor health and writing under strict time constraints, produced novels which were generally not up to the quality of his earlier work. Several of these, such as The Number of the Beast and Friday, begin well but end in a jumble of unresolved ideas.

Ideas and Themes

Heinlein's philosophy

As in the work of other authors, in Heinlein's work there is little clear distinction between the themes of his work and the sort of philosophical views that he propagated.

In his book To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Heinlein has the main character, Maureen, state that the purpose of metaphysics is to ask questions: Why are we here? Where are we going after we die? (and so on), and that you are not allowed to answer the questions. Asking the questions is the point for metaphysics, but answering them is not, because once you answer them, you cross the line into religion.

Maureen doesn't state a reason for this; she simply remarks that such questions are "beautiful" but lack answers. The implication seems to be as follows: because (as Heinlein held) deductive reasoning is strictly tautological (i.e. never generates conclusions that were not already presumed in the premises) and because inductive reasoning is always subject to doubt, the only source of reliable "answers" to such questions is direct experience — which we don't have.

Maureen's son/lover Lazarus Long makes a related remark in Time Enough For Love. In order for us to answer the "big questions" about the universe, Lazarus states at one point, it would be necessary to stand outside the universe. (It is not quite clear why this should be so, but at any rate this is what Lazarus says. The usual warnings about mistaking a character's views for those of the author apply here, of course, but this opinion seems fairly easy to tie into Heinlein's own views as expressed in nonfiction and interviews.)

During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinlein was deeply interested in Count Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and attended a number of seminars on the subject. His views on epistemology seem to have flowed from that interest, and (some of) his fictional characters continue to express Korzybskian views to the very end of his writing career.

Heinlein's politics

Heinlein's writing may appear to have oscillated wildly across the political spectrum. His first novel, For Us, The Living, consists largely of speeches advocating the
social_credit system, and the early story Misfit deals with an organization which seems to be Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps translated into outer space. Stranger in a Strange Land was embraced by the hippie counterculture, and Glory Road can be read as an antiwar piece, while Starship Troopers has been deemed militaristic, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, published during the Reagan administration, is stridently right-wing, with, e.g., the sympathetically portrayed first-person character referring to illegal immigrants as "wetbacks."

There are, however, certain threads in Heinlein's political thought that are remarkably constant. He was strongly committed to libertarianism, as expressed most eloquently in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, which many consider to be his finest novel. His early juvenile novels often contain a surprisingly strong antiauthoritarian message, as in his first published novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which has a group of boys blasting off in a rocket ship in defiance of a court order. In contrast to the Christian right, Heinlein was opposed to any encroachment of religion into government, and pilloried organized religion effectively in Job, A Comedy of Justice, and, with more subtlety and ambivalence, in Stranger in a Strange Land. His future history includes a period called the Interregnum, in which a backwoods revivalist becomes dictator of the United States. Positive descriptions of the military (Between Planets, Red Planet) tend to emphasize the individual actions of volunteers in the spirit of the Minutemen, while the draft and the military as an extension of government are portrayed with skepticism in Time Enough for Love and Glory Road.

Struggle for self-determination

The theme of revolution against corrupt, nasty oppressors infuses several of Heinlein's novels:

The theme of self-making

The theme of self-making is taken to its furthest in the related books Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset. We are invited to wonder, what would humanity be if we shaped customs to our benefit, and not the other way around? How would our humanity be expressed if we did not develop under the soul-squashing influence of culture? We would be individuals. We would have self-made souls.

Other recurring themes binding Heinlein's works together include individual dignity, the value of both personal liberty and responsibility, the virtue of independence, science as a liberating factor, the perniciousness of bureaucrats, the brutality of corporate power, the hypocrisy of organized religion, the objective value of Korzybski's general-semantics and the subjective value of mysticism.


Heinlein's fictional works can be found in the library under Library of Congress .E288, or under Dewey 813.54.

Early Heinlein novels

Juvenile novels

Late Heinlein novels

"Future History" short fiction

Other short fiction





External links

Further reading