The Robert Anson Heinlein Discussions

Robert Anson Heinlein, image from Wikimedia
Robert Anson Heinlein, image from Wikimedia

A lot of people have been writing about Robert Anson Heinlein recently. This isn’t surprising since he was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.

But most of the people mentioning him don’t seem to:

a) Have read Heinlein

b) Have understood what Heinlein wrote

I was never lucky enough to meet Heinlein. I wish I had, his writing has had a huge impact on my thinking, and writing. I’m going to try and, well, untangle things.

I think it all started with a post on Baen’s Bar by Toni Weisskopf of Baen Books, which was reprinted on Sarah Hoyt’s blog.

There’s a couple of important points that need to be considered. First, it has always been possible to be a fan, but not be part of Fandom. My own entry into Fandom was accidental. I was recuperating from a car accident, off-work, and had time on my hands, so I was able to hit Toronto Star Trek 76. I had a heck of a lot of fun, met Hal Clement (and later pushed to have him as a regular guest at Ad Astra, the Toronto GenCon), and got stared at by Harlan Ellison (I was staring at him, trying to remember where I’d seen him before – his picture was on the back of his books).

A lot of people I know who read Science Fiction have never attended a con, or been part of Fandom. This is normal. Very normal.

Second, while the people who don’t attend cons, or may not even read (there’s been a lot of good Science Fiction and Fantasy on TV and in the movies since Star Trek first showed it could be done), that doesn’t mean they don’t share our values. Some do. Some don’t. Some of the does, and some of the don’ts have since become successful writers, WITHOUT EVER TOUCHING FANDOM.

And that’s fine. We shouldn’t try for a cookie cutter one size fits all definition of a fan. It’s impossible, and it’s stupid. We need the cross-pollination we get from those who read, and write, even if they never get into Fandom.

Most cons never get above 1,000 attendees. But David Weber‘s book A Rising Thunder hit number 3 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Now just what would we do if everyone who read David Weber started attending conventions? Besides giving the ConCom heart failure (disclosure – I’ve worked and/or been ConCom numerous times, ConCom is used to worrying about not enough people showing up, too many, well, we’d freak).

Then you have to wonder what Heinlein himself would have thought of the idea of using a loyalty test? Heinlein’s writing shows an immense distrust of authority. I don’t think he’d have liked the idea, and I don’t think he’d have liked his books being the loyalty test.

Most readers seem to misunderstand Heinlein. A lot of people think he wrote Hard SF (hard science based). He didn’t. He wrote Soft SF (soft science based). Heinlein was far more interested in the Sociological impact of society on people, and how they reacted, then whether or not a reactor was going to blow up. Or for that matter how spaceships worked – check his books, his descriptions of how any technology worked were vague.

A lot of Heinlein fans think he was Super-Conservative financially. The only book that shows that mind set happens to be my personal favourite, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. On finance, Heinlein was a pragmatist. He was aware that money doesn’t grow on trees, but he was also aware that money is only a tool (as evidenced by Lazarus Long burning a bank note in Time Enough for Love).

Several Heinlein fans wrote rather imaginative defences of Mitt Romney during the 2012 American Presidential Election. The problem is, Heinlein would have run screaming from the current Republican Party. Remember Nehemiah Scudder, the character Heinlein hated so much, he never did write the part of his Future History that Scudder featured in? That’s what the current Republican Party looks like. Consider Ted Cruz…

Then there’s this hugely amusing bit from John Scalzi:

Anecdotally speaking, Baen’s folk really do appear to have a high level of identification with the house, and much (but to be clear, not all) of Baen’s stock-in-trade is a specific type of science fiction, which structurally resembles “golden age” science fiction and whose readership/authorship correlates with social/political conservatism.

Amusing, because John got it so wrong. Heinlein was no Social Conservative, in fact he was decades ahead of the majority of people on issues like Racism, LBGTQ rights, and Human Rights in general. Also Heinlein didn’t write Hard SF as I mentioned above. In fact if Heinlein was to start writing today, I don’t know if Baen would touch him. His writing is just way too different from what they normally print (Disclosure – whenever possible I pay extra to get pre-release copies of books from Baen, they print a LOT of good stuff).

Then you have to remember that what Baen prints doesn’t resemble Golden Age Science Fiction anyway. David Weber is not a Social Conservative. He has his most popular character involved in a polygynous relationship, and a lot of his characters have had pre-martial relations. Neither John Ringo or David Drake can be considered Social Conservatives either. Fiscal Conservatives? Yes. And none of them write Hard SF. Which doesn’t mean their stuff isn’t fun to read, just that it isn’t anything like the stuff from the Golden Age. I know, I’ve read and enjoyed both.

I don’t expect this to make any of the principals change their minds. To become a writer, you have to have a head made out of Neutron Star material. Diamond is just too soft.

But maybe I’ll made some people think, and if I’ve managed that, I’ll be happy.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Wednesday March 26, 2014

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8 thoughts on “The Robert Anson Heinlein Discussions

  1. Wayne, actually Heinlein was a mix of hard and soft SF, though I’ll admit, weighted toward the soft which was his real focus. Some of the reading I’ve done has exposed the amount of work that he put into various aspects of his writing, such as the volume of calculations he put into a particular transit from one planet to another in this solar system. He was an engineer before he was an author, and aparently a good one, since the DOD tapped him to head up a team that included L. Sprague DeCamp and Isaac Asimov. And it’s exactly that exacting sort of work that caused him to be able to take apart society and put it back together the way he did, showing the problems and the cures.

    1. Most writers do tend to mix Hard and Soft to a certain extent, however when you look at Heinlein’s writing as a whole, he is heavily biased to the Soft Sciences, and to the impacts on his characters of society. That’s what made him different than the run of the mill Campbell writer, and earned him a place in history.

      Wayne

      1. To me, the difference between hard and soft SF is that hard SF works at getting in as much real science as possible, and amending physical laws just where necessary and as plausibly as possible. Soft SF hand-waves the science in order to focus on what people do, but I never thought hard SF had to ignore social issues.

        1. That’s my take on it too Gary. There aren’t many writers who attempt Hard SF. It’s difficult to write.

          Wayne

  2. Oh man I loved attending Toronto Star Trek ’76. I still have that program signed by most of the cast members that were there. And I got to ride the train home with James Doohan.

    1. That’s a really good question. A lot of these people claim they are fans. Whether or not they’ve read everything, well, who knows? For that matter they may have forgotten the stuff they didn’t like.

      I’ve no idea. No idea at all.

      Wayne

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