Books of 2017, #12 & #14: Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century, by William H. Patterson, Jr.

It was inevitable that I would read this two-part biography of Robert Heinlein.

Though my feelings about him are more complicated than when I was a teenager, to pretend that my exposure to Heinlein in those years didn’t have a profound effect on me would be dishonest in the extreme.

Reading the two fairly doorstop-like volumes, it’s hard not to see this as hagiography; one is left with the impression that Heinlein never seems to have done anything wrong:

Perhaps he was naive, but never foolish (as, say, when he plunged into a first marriage that seems like it must have been doomed from the start). Perhaps he was too accepting, but never unsupportive (as, say, he watched his second wife slide into alcoholism). Perhaps he was too clever for most readers, but never flat-out wrong (as with Farnham’s Freehold).

Maybe this would be easier to take if the book didn’t get relatively easily checked facts wrong—for instance, at one point Barry Goldwater is described as having supported the New Deal:
Certainly Goldwater’s voting record helped Heinlein to support him. It showed he had his heart in the right place—he had voted for the New Deal when it counted […]
It is to laugh.

That this is asserted in a chapter that also asserts that the Democratic Party had been infiltrated by “Leftists” (a thinly-veiled euphemism for “Communists”), which was pushing Heinlein—who had worked with Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California on an almost-socialist platform some thirty years earlier(!)—toward the “center”, represented by Goldwater, doesn’t pass the smell test. I swear, if I never hear another old white man trotting out that “I didn’t abandon the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party abandoned me,” line, it will be too soon.

At least he did the smart thing and passed on Dianetics.

What it comes down to, the thing that ultimately drove me away from his work, is the lack of humility. He is quite open that his work is meant to be at didactic in fuction. OK, that’s fine, but, if you’re going to purport to teach, you better have the right fucking answers, and this is a guy who was wrong again and again, constantly predicting the downfall of civilization, whether to Communism, or nuclear holocaust, or simply the encroachment of other less cultures in a less Western liberal mode.

It’s all a bit too much for a book with the subtitle “In Dialog with His Century”, because it comes off as much more of a monologue.

That said: I would prefer a world that had a more liberal bent—government that interceded when it could be effective, and stayed the fuck out of people’s business when it couldn’t. I suspect he and I would have had rather different ideas about when and how it could be effective, though.

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Michael Alan Dorman

Yogi, brigand, programmer, thief, musician, Republican, cook. I leave it to you figure out which ones are accurate.