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.

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

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.

That’s chutzpah.

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.