Robert A. Heinlein
His Early Work
Heinlein should not be seen as simply an insignificant specialty writer,
but should be placed in the wider context of influential American fiction
A. Heinlein was born 7 July, 1907, the third of seven children by Bam Lyle
and Rex Heinlein. His family was poor in the little country town of Butler,
Missouri. The family moved to Kansas City while Robert was a child. When
he learned to read, he read everything he could lay his hands on.
When Herinlein graduated from Central High School, he was the top honors student of his class.
Essay by Richard J. Williams
Illustration by Charles F. Winans
Expand or Die: Suffocate in Cradle Earth or Move On
|Heinline read all the
books on astronomy in the Public Library while still in his early teens.
He had built himself a small telescope and used to observe the stars from
the roof of his parents house. Working his way through the first year of
Junior College in 1924 and the following year he was appointed to the U.S.
Naval Academy. Apparently, Robert greatly admired his older brother Rex,
who had preceded him at the Naval Academy by some years (Stover 17). It
was unusual for two appointments, so close together, to be awarded to one
family. Robert must have been very diligent in collecting his references.
He describes how much he enjoyed Academy life in his book Space Cadets. Graduating twentieth out of a class of 243 in 1929, Heinlein was to serve in the Navy only five years before his retirement due to a medical condition. Mrs.Virginia Heinlein describes his service career in Grumbles From the Grave: "Following his graduation and commissioning in 1929, he served aboard the Lexington under Captain E.J. King, who later became Commander in Chief of the U.S. Navy during World War II. When his tour of duty on the Lexington was about to end, Captain King asked that he be retained as a gunnery specialist. However, Robert was given duty as gunnery officer on the Roper, a destroyer. Destroyer duty was difficult because of the rolling of the ship, and seasickness was a way of life for him. (xi-xiv) He returned to civilian life in 1934."
For most of the years during the Great Depression he was unemployed, a tubercular patient supported by his disability pay. After his initial recovery he was still without a job. He picked up an interest in physics and took courses at the L.A. campus of the University of California. However, a relapse forced him to move to Denver to recuperate. In early 1939 Heinlein had yet to write his first story. He did not find his calling until he was thirty-two. Like Poe a century earlier, it was a prize that enticed Heinlein to try his luck at writing.
Early Pulp Fiction Writer
According to Leon Stover in Robert Heinlein "Heinlein got started by responding to a prize offer..." (17). His eye caught the announcement of a fifty-dollar prize contest offered for the best amateur short story by an unpublished writer. Heinlein, writing in Expanded Universe states: "In 1939 one could fill three station wagons with fifty dollars worth of groceries." (4). Robert had read science fiction years ago, back in Kansas City, and had always enjoyed it. He had read Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and he was one of the earliest members of the Rocket Society. He was sixteen when he bought his first copy of Science and Invention. This was a forerunner of the science fiction magazine and the editor ran the occasional science fiction story. The magazine was published by Hugo Gernsback. The success of this magazine led Gernsback to publish Amazing Stories in 1926, the first true science fiction magazine (Stover 21). This was the first of the "pulps" and led to many imitations.
|After several days
Heinlein completed his first story and called it Life-Line.
When he had finished it, he re-read it and decided that it was too good
for the magazine offering the prize, so he sent it to the leading magazine
in the field, which was Astounding Science-Fiction. His story
was published and the editor, John Campbell asked for more. Robert had found
a vocation that would not ruin his health. He could write and still study
astronomy. Writing suited him and there was a market, however small, in
the pulp magazines (V. Heinlein 2). At this time, paperback publishing did
not exist in the United States. Virginia Heinlein further relates in Requiem
that "Heinlein's stories blazed across the infant field of science fiction
like another Haley's Comet.
Father of modern science fiction.
Heinline fast became the leading writer in the field. (3). Robert Heinlein is one of the most famous writers in American science fiction. He has published many works that remain in print. Stranger in a Strange Land has sold in the millions. (Olander 7). Starship Trooper is especially popular. Although Heinlein has been called the "father" of modern science fiction, and has received numerous awards, he is not without his critics. He seems to adopt right-wing politics in many of his works. For instance, he advocates corporal punishment for social deviants.
In Heinlein's world it is the Americans who lead the way. He evokes the past as a guide to humanity's future, like a pilgrim first coming to shore or a pioneer arriving on new land. If we are to survive, in Heinlein's future, we must expand or die. Suffocate in cradle earth or move on. Writing in Expanded Universe, Heinlein states "Our race will spread out through space-unlimited room, unlimited energy, unlimited wealth. This is certain." (502). In his book Robert Heinlein, Leon Stover describes this outward shift based on what has gone before: Heinlein's future history of the American journey from America by spaceship follows on the frontier journey within America by wagon train and, before that, deep-water ship.The men and women destined to pioneer the new frontiers of outer space in those "covered wagons of the galaxy" will be self-selected for the right stuff, no less than their heroic ancesters. (28)
The Heinline Hero
Heinlein's plots usually center around a protagonist-the famous "Heinlein hero"-who is always tough, just and relatively fearless. The hero is always "competent." He has the ability to "survive" and through this survival there is the opportunity to examine the ethical, moral and political collective capacity of society. Panshin observed in In Search of Wonder that "Heinlein's heroes are pretty much alike-all competent people" (80). Heinlein, writing in Life-Line has Lazarus Long say: "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." (248)
It is a major criticism of science fiction writers in general, that, while they project into the future the necessity to change and adapt [in order to survive] they, themselves, are rarely able to eliminate their own biases or change their own opinions, within a rapidly changing society. Concerning human nature and morality, they often remain reactionary in the extreme. (Olander 10). An exception to this might be Aldus Huxley.
|Clute, John and Pete
Nichols. Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martins,
Heinlein, Robert A. Tramp Royale. New York: Berkley, 1992.
Heinlein, Virginia, ed. Grumbles From the Grave. New York Ballantine, 1989.
Kondo, Yoji, ed. Requiem. New York: Doherty, 1992.
Olander, Joseph D. and Martin Harry Greenberg, ed. Robert A. Heinlein. New York: Taplinger, 1978.
Stover, Leon. Robert Heinlein. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
World Almanac: Biographical Dictionary. 4th ed. New York: World Almanac, 1990.
Writers Directory. 5th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1979.