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The Stars Our Destination

Heinlein was the best sci-fi writer of all time—and then mysteriously he became the worst.

Book review, June 28, 2014

Four years ago, William H. Patterson brought out the first volume of a monumental biography of the sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein. It was fascinating. Heinlein (1907-88) was a poor kid from Kansas City, an Annapolis graduate and a career naval officer invalided out with tuberculosis at the height of the Great Depression. In 1939, at the age of 32, he entered a writing contest more or less at random, won it, and found himself with an unexpected new career. Around this odd fluke, Patterson wove a lot of unusual material about the peacetime Navy, 1930s socialist politics (the future writer worked for Upton Sinclair's "End Poverty in California" campaign), Heinlein's chaotic attempt at an open marriage and the strange subculture of the old sci-fi pulp magazines.

A Heinlein Sampler

Robert A. Heinlein's early pulp fiction has dated badly, but, if you can tolerate the retro-future quaintness of his 1940s work, you'll discover that he was already a vigorous and assured storyteller. Many of his best stories from this period were part of an interconnected series that has been assembled as "The Past Through Tomorrow: The Future History Stories."

The 12 juveniles are Heinlein's unique glory, but it must be borne in mind that they were originally marketed to school libraries and had to conform to 1950s standards for appropriate teenage reading: no sex, no explicit violence, no religious or political controversy and always a happy ending. The heroes were invariably boys, but Heinlein included strong, intelligent and self-reliant girls in the cast. The books each stand alone, but they have their greatest effect when read in publication order. The complete list is: "Rocket Ship Galileo" (1947); "Space Cadet" (1948); "Red Planet" (1949); "Farmer in the Sky" (1950); "Between Planets" (1951); "The Rolling Stones" (1952); "Starman Jones" (1953); "The Star Beast" (1954); "Tunnel in the Sky" (1955); "Time for the Stars" (1956); "Citizen of the Galaxy" (1957); and "Have Spacesuit—Will Travel" (1958). Particularly good for a nibble are "Red Planet," "Starman Jones" or "Tunnel in the Sky."

Heinlein's trio of masterpieces—"Starship Troopers," "Stranger in a Strange Land" and "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress"—need no special pleading, but readers who want something a little less contentious should try "Double Star" (1956), an exuberant sci-fi take on "The Prisoner of Zenda." It's included in the superb Library of America omnibus "Science Fiction of the 1950s."

The late novels are the worst possible place to begin, but some intrepid readers will doubtless regard that as a challenge. For the record, "Friday" (1982) though not a successful novel, does come the closest to Heinlein's best work. "Time Enough for Love" (1973) is also notable because it begins in the remote future and then swerves unexpectedly back to the Kansas City of Heinlein's youth: It's a powerful demonstration that the author's wildest visions were rooted in American soil.

— L.S.

This is not to say that it was a great book: Patterson, one of those new-style hoarder-biographers, could not bear to leave out any scrap of research, however tangential or irrelevant. Menus, cruise-ship itineraries, exact street addresses: At times he seemed less like a biographer than a travel agent. There was also his attitude toward his subject, an adoration so pure that it made the Magi look like slackers. But it was still a vivid portrait of a knockabout, eccentric, thoroughly American life.

Now we have the conclusion—published, sad to report, two months after Patterson's death. It picks up the story with a grand flourish in 1948. Heinlein is happily remarried and settled into an environment as bizarre as anything in his fiction: the postwar American suburb. It's a land of martinis, barbecues, wife-swapping parties, fallout shelters and political extremism. Heinlein, a lifelong devotee of nudism, alternative lifestyles and radicalism both left and right, fits in perfectly.

But the book proves to be nowhere near as engaging as the first volume. Patterson's failings are compounded by a new problem: Heinlein in the postwar years was a successful writer, and successful writers don't really do much besides work. The colorful adventures recounted in the earlier book are gone; as Patterson tells it, whatever shenanigans may have been going on out on the patio, Heinlein was invariably sitting inside the house writing. He churned out 40 books in the years covered by this volume, and Patterson, helplessly unable to omit or abridge any detail, takes us through the publication history of every one. The drafts, the fights over rewrites, the serialization rights . . . The Heinlein "In Dialogue With His Century" promised by the book's subtitle proves to be Heinlein in dialogue with his editors.

Even so, there's a fascinating drama here. Heinlein began the '50s on a remarkable high. He made an unpromising deal with Scribner's to write a series of outer-space adventures for the teenage market. But he lavished so much skill and imagination on these books that today they are regarded as the defining masterpieces of old-school sci-fi. He followed the 12 "juveniles" (as they're usually called) with three classics for adults: "Starship Troopers" (1959), "Stranger in a Strange Land" (1961) and "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" (1965). All three won the Hugo Award for the year's best science-fiction novel.

But then things went weirdly wrong. Heinlein's next novel, "I Will Fear No Evil," was an uncharacteristically talky and meandering fantasy. (It's about a dying zillionaire who has his brain transplanted into the body of a beautiful young woman.) It was generally regarded as a disaster; a prominent sci-fi fan group derisively presented it with a parody award—an "Elron," a plastic lemon nailed to a piece of plywood—as the worst novel of 1970. Heinlein wrote six more novels before his death in 1988: Each was snapped up eagerly by fans hoping for a return to form; each ended up being dismissed by a chorus of mockery, exasperation, boredom and contempt. The best sci-fi writer of all time had mysteriously morphed into the worst.

What happened? Patterson doesn't answer the question, because the possibility of a creative decline is never seriously considered. He can't bring himself to admit that his hero had flaws. Quoting a review that complained (not unjustly) that the prose of Heinlein's 1980 novel "The Number of the Beast" is convoluted, Patterson merely sneers that the critic "did not actually seem to understand what was going on in the text very well" and drops the subject. (The Elron is never mentioned.)

So readers are left to work out an explanation on their own. My best guess is that Heinlein's collapse was rooted in the qualities that had made him a great writer in the first place.

His work had from the beginning the virtues of the finest pulp: a swift narrative line, an easy conversational manner and a strong uncluttered prose style. But there is also a quality almost unheard of in pulp writing and pretty rare in literature generally: conviction. Heinlein's worlds aren't built out of genre cardboard or adolescent fantasies: They feel like real places, weathered and inhabited. He achieved this effect through a careful accumulation of details. As characters are talking, Heinlein would just drop in an unobtrusive line: "They stepped on a glideway which picked up speed until walls were whizzing past." He didn't explain what a glideway is any more than Raymond Chandler would stop to explain an elevator, but by the end, Heinlein's imaginary worlds seem as beautifully realized and substantial as Philip Marlowe's Los Angeles.

This is what made the juveniles such extraordinary experiences for their first readers. Heinlein's brief was to explain the basics of space travel at a time—pre-NASA, pre-Sputnik—when everything about outer space was still an unknown quantity. His descriptions were so visceral that a whole generation of teenage boys (and a surprising number of girls, as Heinlein's fan mail proved) grew up knowing exactly what spacesuits and weightlessness and the surface of other worlds would feel like long before anybody had experienced them for real. Nor did Heinlein sugarcoat the dangers. No young reader would ever think of space as a cozy or safe environment after Heinlein's harrowing account of a colony on one of Jupiter's moons devastated by the failure of its life-support system in "Farmer in the Sky" (1950) or the spaceship doomed by a trivial navigation error in "Starman Jones" (1953).

But this isn't why the juveniles are still being read now, 60 years later, when the realities and dangers of space exploration can be taken for granted. They have another quality behind their scrupulously naturalistic surface: an intensely persuasive optimism. With each book, the dramas grow more serious, the moral lessons more adult and the sense of space exhilaratingly larger.

The first book, "Rocket Ship Galileo" (1947), is a feeble, Tom Swiftian wheeze about two boys who build a spacecraft in their backyard (the working title was "The Young Atom Engineers and the Conquest of Space"). But Heinlein gained his stride with the second book, "Space Cadet" (1948), and the titles alone of some of the books that followed show how confidently he was reaching out into the unknown: "Red Planet" (1949), "Between Planets" (1951), "Time for the Stars" (1956). The expanding scale hit a crescendo in 1957 with the 11th book, a grand Kiplingesque adventure in the far future, about the struggle between freedom and slavery set against the backdrop of an interstellar civilization: Its title is "Citizen of the Galaxy." Taken as a whole, the juveniles offer a radiantly hopeful vision of human prospects: The message is that we will move outward into the universe, by a historical process as natural and inevitable as the passage from adolescence to adulthood.

The novels for adults that followed were just as emotionally compelling. And that's exactly the problem. "Starship Troopers" is about a future society facing a total war against an implacably hostile alien species: Heinlein does not just describe the war with his typical vividness; he conjures up a high-tech military culture, with a worldview and ruling ideology to fit (among other things, only veterans have the right to vote), and hurls the reader into its midst with such imaginative force that its rationale seems not only inevitable but somehow desirable. Many readers have been deeply moved (I know of more than one enlistment in the real-world military inspired by it); others have felt that they're being bullied by a brilliant piece of fascist propaganda. Five decades on, it remains the most bitterly divisive book in the history of sci-fi.

Heinlein himself was greatly upset by the controversy. He wrote that he had no idea whether the militaristic society in the book would really work; he went on to make his 1963 novel "Glory Road" a virtual mirror-inversion of "Starship Troopers," where the combat-veteran hero is an irresponsible goofball (it's rather scary to imagine him voting). And when, in 1974, the young Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman published a direct attack on the politics of "Starship Troopers" in his own sci-fi novel "The Forever War," Heinlein repeatedly went out of his way to praise it.

Heinlein grew to be just as ambivalent about his other masterworks. "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" is a visionary epic of a lunar colony breaking free from earth's government and establishing an anarchist-libertarian utopia. But even as it was being enshrined by the libertarian movement as a foundational text (it was endorsed by Milton Friedman), Heinlein turned cagey and evasive about whether he was advocating its revolutionary agenda. Once again, it was as though his own persuasiveness was making him uncomfortable. This discomfort escalated exponentially into nightmare with "Stranger in a Strange Land." Heinlein always insisted that he meant it as nothing more than a satirical and ironic fantasy à la "Candide" (the working title was "The Man From Mars"); he was both amused and appalled when the hippies took it up, enchanted by his luxuriantly sybaritic portrait of a Martian free-love commune. (Patterson reprints a whimsical fan letter that Heinlein wrote to Jefferson Airplane granting the band permission to quote lines from his novels in lyrics.) But he was horrified to discover that the novel was the bible of the Manson cult.

I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that the catastrophic fall-off in Heinlein's work began after the 1969 Manson murders. The novels he wrote in the 1970s and 1980s wholly lack his old persuasiveness. Nothing in them is real, nothing is at stake and nobody takes anything seriously. Characters travel not to other planets but to the familiar and harmless settings of childhood fantasy: Oz or Barsoom. There are interminable scenes of adolescent ribaldry and reams of metafictional banter, for which Heinlein has approximately zero gift (though it is funny when a character in "The Number of the Beast" dismisses "Stranger in a Strange Land" with: "My God, the things some writers will do for money"). The overall effect is so low-energy and stupefying that it's hard to believe it isn't somehow deliberate—as though Heinlein is out to repudiate his greatest talent and make sure no reader is inspired to take any action whatever.

This is not a view that Patterson would have endorsed. In writing his biography, he made Heinlein's career into a triumphal march. I think Heinlein was more contrarian and more wayward than Patterson was prepared to admit—but it does have to be granted that Patterson has amassed a mountain of evidence on his side for Heinlein's great success.

For better or worse, few writers in the modern era have had as strong and pervasive an influence. Patterson describes Heinlein paying a visit to NASA in 1975 and being mobbed by scientists and engineers telling him that they had joined the space program because of his books—especially the juveniles. That alone would justify a two-volume biography, whatever its flaws: For decades, people have been building the future that Heinlein imagined, and now we are all inhabiting it.

This article appeared June 28, 2014, in the The Wall Street Journal in print and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson Jr. (Tor, 671 pages, $34.99)