Volume 29, Number 3, Spring 2011

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

By William H. Patterson

Tor, 2010
Reviewed by Anders Monsen

I read my first Robert Heinlein novel in my early teens—The Puppet Masters. I believe it was the only book in the school library by Heinlein, as I remember reading no other books by him until my late teens, in a different continent and a different lifetime. Though I vividly remember this book and several other novels of his, Heinlein never made the impact on me like Jack Vance, whom I idolize. Still, that doesn’t discount his influence on me; I’ve read most but not all of Heinlein’s books. While some remain among my favorites (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Red Planet), others I have abandoned in despair (Time Enough for Love and I Will Fear No Evil). However, my literary impression of Heinlein—and one shared by many others, I believe—is that he stands head and shoulders above any other writer as the father of libertarian sf (although probably adopted by his “children,” rather than being through-and-through libertarian), not to mention being one of the main influences in the history of the entire genre of sf. If a Mount Rushmore of science fiction writers were etched into the Moon, Robert Anson Heinlein would be the first and most prominent of the select few in that monument.

Although several critical works have been written about Heinlein (1907-1988), this is the most complete biography to date. Gaps in his life remain, as some material is not available, and other sources were destroyed. Years in the making, much of the source material comes from letters, as well as interviews with Heinlein’s last wife, Virginia, who died in 2003. Prometheus Award-winning author Brad Linaweaver (Moon of Ice) is acknowledged as instrumental in fostering this biography, introducing Patterson to Mrs. Heinlein.

My mental image of Heinlein’s biography, until reading Bill Patterson’s vast and detailed work, consisted at most of a paragraph or two, drawn from book jackets, along with a few moments from his posthumous Grumbles from the Grave. Born on July 7, 1907 near Kansas City, Missouri, he went to Annapolis Naval Academy upon a political favor, married his second wife Virginia right after splitting with his first wife Leslyn post-WWII, broke through with “Life-Line” in one of John Campbell’s sf magazines in the late 1930s, cracked the juvenile sf market after the war, and went on to become one of the leading writers of science fiction in the twentieth century. Much of this is incomplete. Some of this is myth. Patterson’s biography opened my eyes, filled in the details, and provided an entirely new image of Heinlein.

Biography is part art and part science. The biographer deciphers a person’s life from his physical evidence and those of the people who knew him. Letters, books, public and private records help fill in details of lives lived decades in the past. Often those details are obscured by lies and falsifications, either to hide the truth, mask it, or embellish it to suit the image of the subject. Documents are often incomplete or destroyed (Charles Dickens famously burned sacks full of letters to hide these from future biographers, and Heinlein went through the same process after a critical moment in his life). People tend to look back at past events and spin these in certain ways, either consciouly or sub-consiously, and perception is almost as valid as reality. This is not to say that Patterson’s biography is flawed. However, many of the sources are letters and reminiscences written years after the fact. Still, Patterson does not shy away from tough facts, and the detail is breathtaking. He doesn't take statements as facts, but seems to have gone to great length to corroborate and cross-reference them from other sources. The historical value of this biography outside of Heinlein’s life brings key moments in American history to life. Patterson, as a long-time Heinlein admirer and driving force of the Heinlein Society, which exists to “preserve the legacy” of Heinlein, more than carries his weight in this biography. While this biography is likely not the full picture of Heinlein the person, it paints as a complete a picture as we have seen to date of him.

Patterson has selected not one but two sub-titles for his biography. The second, “Learning Curve,” deals with this particular volume, and covers the first forty or so years of Heinlein’s life. Presumably, the second book deals with Heinlein the master of sf, after he has mastered the learning curve of life and fiction, and moved into the second forty years of his life (see below). The other sub-title, which is the over-arching theme of the biography, is Heinlein’s dialog with his century. Though not a complete century, as Heinlein died in 1988 and did not see the changes that exploded just one year later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the failed spring in China, and the rise of the internet, Heinlein’s life covered some of the major points of the 20th century, and impacted huge segments of American and international life from various points for the majority of his century.

The learning curve is manifold: fiction, marriage, career, philosophy, and more. We learn of Heinlein’s true first marriage, a hasty and probably ill-advised action while fresh out of the Naval academy, ruining his chances for a Rhodes scholarship, culminating in a swift separation and almost complete burial of this episode from his past. What amazed me about Heinlein’s life is that he struggled with poverty all his childhood, bootstrapping himself through a variety of jobs, reading voraciously to gain an education, and submitting 50 letters of recommendation when seeking the Naval academy post, versus one letter each from the dozens of other candidates. Heinlein showed a focus and will early in his life that probably drove him to become the famous writer in his later years.

This is a highly personal biography, not a critical (literary) one. Indeed, Patterson states this in one of the end-notes, and he never analyzes any of the stories or novels written by Heinlein through 1948, the stopping point in this book. We get glimpses into the origins of the stories, and hints of Heinlein’s work on the film Destination Moon. We see how many of his stories borrow from Heinlein’s socialist or modern liberal values. Much has been made of Heinlein’s wives directing his political veiws, as Leslyn was strongly liberal, while Ginny proto-libertarian. There is a telling moment when Franklin D. Roosevelt visits the location where Ginny and Robert worked during WWI. Everyone went out to see FDR except for Ginny, who disliked his social policies and the New Deal, and this fact shocked Robert profoundly.

Yet as Patterson makes clear, Heinlein was his own person, who held many of his liberal views before he met Leslyn, and if he changed when Ginny came along, it was not as if he didn’t think for himself. The early 20th century America saw people labeled as revolutionary in one decade and reactionary in another, or conservative and then radical, without them changing their political position—the world changed around them. It is doubtful Heinlein truly was an individualist libertarian, but people change over time. Patterson argues for Heinlein as a libertarian socialist (who dropped the socialist label when this became associated too much with state-imposed limitations on liberty, not enhancements). There certainly exist libertarians/individualist anarchists of the late 19th and early 20th century who saw no contradictions between liberty and socialism (as it was defined then). Heinlein spent much time and energy campaigning for liberal causes in the 1930s, and greatly admired FDR until some after WWII, and was fiercly patriotic (almost to the point of stuffiness, a character trait developed early in life). Of the transition from Upton Sinclair campaigner and FDR admirer to Barry Goldwater supporter we get little, in this book; possibly more will emerge in volume 2 (the author's progress on which can be followed at http://www.whpattersonjr.com/blog/index.php).

While I remembered snippets of the origins of Heinlein the author—short story competition where “Life-Life” propelled him to write many stories for John Campbell, then broke into the slicks (magazines like The Saturday Evening Post), continued with juvenile novels, and finally, the adult later works—much of that memory is superficial: a one minute news-story that fails to paint the whole picture. Heinlein suffered through rejections, spent years not writing, lived on the edge of poverty and at times from royalty-check to royalty-check. I learned of his many pseudonyms, the fact he sold a story to Weird Tales, his struggles with the pettiness of fans and fandom, yet his constant generosity. He was a complex person, somewhat out of tune with the mainstream of society; he explored nudism, open marriage, and a variety of other “vices” at the time. I had no idea it was still illegal to cohabit with someone of the opposite sex as late as 1947, that he lived out of a trailer in the time between his marriages to Leslyn and Ginny, and many other details brought to light in this book.

Aside from the main thrust of the book, the vast end-notes also contain interesting asides and comments. Perhaps some day we may see the Collected Letters of Robert A. Heinlein published. In the meantime, those of us with an interest in the life of Heinlein will find invaluable hours in this book. I look forward to the next volume and learning more about the latter half of his life.

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