I was a science-fiction-crazed sophomore in high school when I first pulled Robert A. Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow off the new arrivals shelf at my hometown library. It wasn’t the first Heinlein I’d read; like most kids with an obsession with SF, I’d read all of his juveniles that I could get my hands on. I’m pretty sure I’d also read The Door into Summer and Double Star. And I’d already come across some of the stories in this groundbreaking book, since I’d read his earlier collection The Man Who Sold The Moon. But I was very much taken by the scope of Heinlein’s ambition. A history of the future told in twenty-one stories! Are writers allowed to do that? It boggled this fifteen-year-old’s mind! Actually, as Damon Knight tells us in his Introduction <rvt.com/~lucas/heinlein/dknight.html> to The Past Through Tomorrow, “future history” was John W. Campbell’s coinage and Heinlein was “mildly embarrassed by it.” What struck me about these stories was not only that they took place in a coherent future, but that Heinlein’s future was filled with all kinds of people. Some of the stories are about billionaires and some are about common folk. Some are the stories are funny, some are heart-breaking. A few are slight, and several are among Heinlein’s best. When I returned that book to the library back in 1967, I was quite sure that it had been written by the greatest science fiction writer who ever lived.
For reasons I don’t exactly understand, I’ve had Heinlein on my mind this past year. Maybe it has something to do with the debate that’s been going on about whether we need more entry level stories. Has the fiction in this magazine become so complex that only longtime readers of SF can parse it? How do we coax fifteen year oldsor bright ten year olds, for that matterto read science fiction? I’m not sure whether Heinlein is the answer, but in any event, I’ve been rereading his classics.
Actually, I haven’t been rereading but rather relistening. In a previous installment I commended Audible <audible.com> to your attention. They have a tidy, though woefully incomplete, assortment of Heinlein audiobooks. I’ve listened to unabridged recordings of Double Star and Starship Troopers and the juvenile Farmer in the Sky, which I had somehow missed back in the day. Probably because I thought a novel about farming would be boring, although Heinlein managed to sell homesteading on Ganymede to this fifty-something. But the surprise among the Audible collection were two other juveniles, The Rolling Stones and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. They were produced by Full Cast Audio <fullcastaudio.com> and my inner ten-year-old, fifteen-year-old, and fifty-something-year-old were thrilled. Bruce Coville <brucecoville.com> came up with the brilliant concept behind these productions, which is to give the listener “unabridged recordings of fine children’s novels using a full cast rather than a single reader. Whenever possible, we invite the author to serve as narrator. Our recordings are always unabridgedthe only things deleted from the text are those attributives (“he said”, “she growled”, etc.) made unnecessary by having a full complement of actors.” These wonderful titles occupy a middle ground between the traditionally narrated audiobook and an audioplay complete with music and sound environments. In addition to the catalog available on Audible, Full Cast sells CDs from it website. I highly recommend FCA!
Robert Heinlein turns a hundred this year. To celebrate, Heinlein aficionados will gather in Kansas City on July 6-8 for the Robert A. Heinlein Centennial <heinleincentennial.com>. There will be SF writers in attendance, like Spider Robinson <spiderrobinson.com> and Robin Wayne Bailey <robinwaynebailey.net>, spaceflight stars like NASA administrator Michael Griffin <http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/griffin_bio.html>, SpaceShipOne Pilot Brian Binnie <scaled.com/projects/tierone/binnie.htm>, and the winner of the first five hundred thousand dollar Heinlein Prize for Accomplishments in Commercial Space Activities <heinleinprize.com> Dr. Peter Diamandis <http://web1-xprize.primary.net/who/bio.php?bioname=diamandis> as well as a number of noted Heinlein scholars. I’d consider going myself if I wasn’t already committed to teach <usm.maine.edu/stonecoastmfa> in Maine. But I can celebrate the man here and now by pointing you toward the abundance of Heinlein resources on the web.
If you google (isn’t it amazing how this obscure noun from mathematics has passed into common parlance as a verb?) Robert A. Heinlein, the first hit is site:RAH The Robert A. Heinlein Home Page <nitrosyncretic.com/rah>. This well-designed site is the work of James Gifford and features among other things, some of Gifford’s astute critical and bibliographic writing. Among its other treasures are two facsimile articles from Popular Mechanics <popularmechanics.com>. One, from 1950, describes the making of Destination Moon <geocities.com/scifiart/DestinationMoon/moon1.htm>, which was adapted from a Heinlein story and on which Heinlein worked. The other article, from 1952, is a tour of the house that Heinlein and his wife Virginia engineered and built in Colorado Springs. The writer takes a breathless “House of the Future” approach to his subject. Site:RAH also has several sound clips from a Heinlein interview given in 1980.
There are sixteen sites listed on the Robert A. Heinlein Ring <ringsurf.com/netring?ring=Heinlein;action=list> several of which are worth a click.
For example, the Heinlein <members.fortunecity.com/tirpetz/authorpages/heinlein/heinlein.htm> website opens onto a gallery of some of the cover art that graced his many books, while the heinleinblog <heinleinblog.blogpeoria.com> “exists to post articles whenever The Master’s name is evoked in the press.” The Asa Hunter Memorial Heinlein Book Exchange <pixelmeow.com/Book_Exchange/index.htm> takes on a very Heinleinesque mission, sharing copies of Heinlein’s work.
One of the most controversial sites on the Heinlein ring is Alexei Panshin’s <enter.net/~torve/contents.htm> The Critic’s Lounge <enter.net/~torve/critics/lounge.htm>. There was bad blood between Heinlein and Panshin, which arose out of Heinlein’s attempt to stop publication of Panshin’s book-length critical analysis of the grandmaster, Heinlein in Dimension. In The Critics Lounge you can read Heinlein in Dimension, which was published after Panshin won a Hugo for pieces of it that appeared in fanzines. You can also assess Panshin’s version of his history with Heinlein. Tucked into a far corner of the Lounge is Starship Troopers: The PITFCS Debate, which documents a fascinating conversation from a fanzine letters column that took place in 1961-2. Some of the field’s most accomplished writers and thinkers weigh in with opinions on the morality of Starship Troopers, people such as Philip José Farmer, Brian Aldiss, Damon Knight, James Blish, Poul Anderson, and John Brunner.
The Heinlein Society <heinleinsociety.org> was founded after Heinlein’s death by his widow, Virginia. It is a non-profit educational organization charged with disseminating the works and wisdom of Heinlein. Among other programs it sponsors an annual Heinlein Award, “for outstanding published work in hard science fiction or technical writings inspiring the human exploration of space” The award was won in 2006 by Greg Bear <gregbear.com>. When you visit the Heinlein Society website, be sure to click the Robert Heinlein link, which will take you to an eclectic collection of reviews, commentary, pictures, and appreciations as well as excellent short biographies of both Robert and Virginia Heinlein.
Robert A. Heinlein, Dean of Science Fiction Writers <wegrokit.com> is an excellent general interest site, with a fine listing of the published works, many of them reviewed and an impressive Museum of Book Covers. However, this site had not been updated in a year when I stopped by.
The Quotable Heinlein <quotableheinlein.com> is a search engine attached to a database of Heinlein’s fiction, non-fiction, and correspondence. You type in a keyword and up pops all the occurrences of that word in the database. For example, when I typed in “critics” I got just one result: “Lately some literary critics have been condemning my stories as being elitist and concerned only with superior peopleinstead of the little people, the common people, the born losers. Those critics are correct: the sort of hero I like to write about is a boy from a broken home and a poverty stricken background who pulls himself up by his bootstraps. . . .” Personal communication, letter of 15 June 1981
I count myself a fan of Heinlein, although I must confess that his last works disappoint me. The narratives get windier and crankier and some of the people are hard to believe. He headed into territory that I wasn’t all that interested in exploring and so I stayed behind with Mannie and Mike, Delos D. Harriman, Kip and Peewee, the Great Lorenzo and all the rest of his competent, decent, free-thinking, and admirable heroes.
But I want to come back to the question of whether Heinlein is a good candidate for turning new readers on to science fiction, because I think the answer is mixed. Some of the juveniles ought to work very well, and I think that Full Cast Audio has made shrewd choices in what they have produced thus far. However, when my daughter Maura was a sophomore in high school, she asked me to recommend an SF novel and I gave her what is probably my favorite Heinlein, The Door into Summer. She was, and is, an omnivorous reader and yet she couldn’t finish it. I was shocked. I asked her why, but didn’t press that hard; teenagers are experts at shrugging off clueless parental inquiries.
I do have a theory, however. The novel is set in 1970, ten years before Maura was born. It was set in Heinlein’s future when he published in 1956, but it would have been just a chapter from her Modern American History text. Except she could see that we didn’t have household robots, alas. And suspended animationnot so much. Could there really be a nuclear war that destroyed Washington and yet didn’t really bother people much? And by the way, what the hell is a slide rule? Some kind of calculator?
I grew up on the works of Jules Verne. And yet I wouldn’t think of giving Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea to someone who was interested in finding out what contemporary SF was all about. Any writer so bold as to attempt to write near-future science fiction must be aware that its sell by date will come and go. As time passes her well-considered extrapolations will become increasingly . . . well . . . quaint. Heinlein is slowly but inevitably undergoing Verne-ization. And believe me, I feel Heinlein’s pain. I won a Hugo for a story that posits nuclear holocaust in 2009. And I have any number of stories that depend on there being a Soviet Union in the middle of this century.
Wait a minute! Who am I to be feeling Robert Anson Heinlein’s pain? I realize that I’ve been impertinent in print to one of my favorite writers. Someone who has had a huge impact on my own career as a writer.
I apologize, sir; let me try to make amends. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR. HEINLEIN!