Or: I think I have finally figured out why Robert Heinlein makes me so nuts
At the age of 17—the year he died—my most favorite author in the whole world was probably Robert Heinlein. I don’t think anyone else came anywhere close. I had read just about everything he had ever published, and (with the exception of Farnham’s Freehold), I loved it all.
Some of these books had enormous implications for my attitude toward the world—Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers being the most obvious. They marked me indelibly. They helped make me who I am today.
Which is why, for about the last fifteen years or so, I’ve not understood why I couldn’t pick up one of his novels and read it without getting…annoyed, often downright pissed-off, even as I could recognize how this or that passage or scene had had some specific impact on me.
It’s not that I was disappointed to find that they were badly written—to this day, I rarely have problems with Heinlein’s prose, or even his plots; he was good at the craft of writing. Hell, I recently re-read The Sword of Shanarra, a book I had a great deal of affection for at 14, and found that, yeah, it was actually worse than I had expected (not just wan pastiche of Tolkien, but, truly, badly written to boot), and that didn’t piss me off. So it wasn’t that.
I think I finally found the answer the other day.
I was thinking about something—I don’t even remember what about, probably something political—when I said to myself, “Well, of course, that’s just a social construct.” And I started considering where I had been taught to look at things that way, to try and see the way so many things we are told are “the way things are” are really just things that we as a society have chosen to privilege, and should be open to being questioned and, ultimately, changed.
And as I thought about it, I realized that that was something that I almost certainly got from Robert Heinlein. It is, in fact, a huge theme throughout his work—almost all of his characters question social conventions, defy them, reshape them, mock them and generally point out how instrumental they are in keeping people down, and often unhappy.
What I realized annoys me is that, having established that social conventions and mores are things to be regarded with suspicion and contempt, Heinlein then proceeds to tell you how if you did it his way, everyone would be better off.
I think the problem was that as I became an adult, as I started to move into the real world, I ran up against the realization that his vision of what would make everyone better off comes off as somewhere between quaintly backward—right up until his last novel, he has a sort of Madonna/whore complex that comes off as alternately protective and patronizing toward women—and Ayn Rand levels of ignorant of actual humanity. Even when I agree with him, the way he presents these notions makes me cringe, because they’re presented in such a paternalistic way, in circumstances that are so absent from real life.
In effect, as I internalized what I think was his greatest lesson—and don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful for that lesson, it has stood me in good stead all my life—I was being set up to not actually be able to enjoy his writing.
I can’t decide if it’s a shame, or it’s a natural progression, the realization that eventually people do run out of things to teach you, or that you have to sort through the lessons yourself to understand what really matters.