Volume 29, Number 1, Fall 2010

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialog with His Century, Volume 1—Learning Curve, 1907-1948

By William H. Patterson

Tor, 2010
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

This first volume of Patterson’s biography covers the life of Robert Heinlein up through his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld. This was in fact almost exactly in the middle of his life; but Patterson may also be taking it as the single greatest event in his life. Certainly Heinlein’s own statements about Virginia supported such a view. In his own comments, and the comments of writers he befriended, Virginia bestrides his personal universe like a colossus. Patterson shows their early encounters, under the stress of World War II and of his failing marriage to his previous wife, Leslyn; but much of this book is taken up with Leslyn, to whom he was married while he wrote the stories that first made him American science fiction’s central figure. And before both, it shows his first passionate relationship, with the United States Navy, which remained one of the great loves of his life even after tuberculosis ended his career as a naval officer.

Heinlein’s childhood and adolescence get only three brief chapters. We learn that he was exceptionally bright and an omnivorous reader. As a middle child in a large family, he was forced into early independence by parents who had little time to spare for him; the family’s chronic financial strain couldn’t have helped. He held a long series of jobs during his boyhood, while also carrying a heavy course load in high school. His admission to Annapolis came about through a sustained campaign; when he wrote to Senator Reed, requesting an appointment, fifty other candidates each submitted one letter of recommendation, but Heinlein sent in fifty!

Through all this, he was something of an outsider, not only because of social position, or because of his unusual intelligence, but because of a streak of mysticism: he had past-life experiences until puberty, and also the intermittent sense that if he could only fully wake up, he would experience the other people around him as aspects of himself. These experiences showed up later in his fiction: In “They,” in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag,” in “All You Zombies,” and in Stranger in a Strange Land, among other works.

Institutional Christianity, on the other hand, seems always to have felt alien to him. He wasn’t given to outward unconventionality, and was always willing to fit in with other people’s observances, but he never took them as more than social ritual. Whatever belief he had in Christian doctrine ended when, as a boy, he read Darwin, especially The Descent of Man. Some of H. G. Wells’s Darwin-inspired science fiction also played a part.

Wells was also, as is well known, a Fabian socialist with visions of the rational reconstruction of society. We now remember Heinlein as a key figure in science fiction’s other great tradition, one that envisions outer space as an analog of the American frontier, and like it, a haven for individual liberty. But this found its fullest expression in the “juveniles” he wrote for Scribner’s, mostly after the period this book covers. Patterson shows that earlier in his life, Heinlein had visions more like Wells’s, of a scientifically planned society, to be seen for example in Beyond This Horizon and in the earlier novel, never published in his lifetime (and for good reason!), For Us, the Living. Among other things, Heinlein was influenced by C. H. Douglas’s Social Credit movement, one of the unorthodox economic proposals cited with some favor in Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. Douglas, like Keynes, thought that by carefully calculated issue of fiat money, the government could prevent boom and bust cycles and maintain steady prosperity indefinitely. One of the secondary characters in Beyond This Horizon, Monroe-Alpha Clifford, has precisely that job, and explains to the hero that if the great “accumulators” that keep track of all economic activity stopped working, the world would return to boom and bust cycles.

Jeff Riggenbach has suggested that Heinlein in fact had no strong political convictions, but simply took on the beliefs of whichever woman he was married to at the time: socialism with Leslyn, conservatism or libertarianism with Virginia. But Patterson makes it clear that this is an oversimplification. On one hand, Heinlein was already calling himself a socialist, privately, years before he met Leslyn and went to work for Upton Sinclair’s political campaign, and he was also influenced by progressives such as John Dewey. But on the other, his tradition of socialism was a distinctly American one. He was never a Marxist, he rejected class struggle as an idea, and he was bitterly hostile to communism long before he met Virginia. And in addition, even as a socialist, he never was in favor of the omnipotent state. In his short story “The Roads Must Roll,” for example, he portrays the villain of the story both as an adherent of a radical movement akin to Technocracy (but with the serial numbers rubbed off) and as a bitter little second-rater more skilled at manipulation than at doing any useful work. In a comment on Technocracy, quoted by Patterson, he said that “I am inclined to believe that in due time American versions of Hitler and Mussolini would maneuver their way to the driver’s seat, and that we would have a hell of a time getting them out...In our present set-up no matter how bad an administration is, we get a chance every couple of years or so to ‘turn the rascals out.’” This is a school of “socialism” that, for all its flaws and naïveté, is much more congenial to libertarians than the command economies Mises and Hayek criticized. And above all, Heinlein said that he would put the Bill of Rights ahead of any economic policy whatsoever. In all this, his earlier views clearly hold the seeds of the political ideas of the second half of his life. On the other hand, Patterson has done a service by showing us where he started out and how his views evolved.

This biography will be of interest to any fan of Heinlein, including most members of the LFS. The sheer level of factual detail gives us a far more comprehensive portrait of the man behind the books than we have ever had before. At the same time, Patterson does an excellent job of focusing on the interesting facts about Heinlein’s life. In particular, we see a man who faced a long series of difficulties and hardships, and found ways to transcend them. Readers of his books learned from them to admire the self-reliant human being, but now Patterson shows us that Robert Heinlein himself had the self-reliance that he praised.

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