Bewildering Stories

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Heinlein: The Man, The Myth, The Whack Job

by D. A. Madigan

I’ve promised a couple of people already a long, rambling monologue on Heinlein, inspired by some of the material I’ve found on James Gifford’s pretty excellent Heinlein fansite. So I suppose I may as well get started.

I’ve long wished I knew other Heinlein fans, or at least one other Heinlein fan, someone who was even close to as well read in Heinlein’s work and as generally interested in social nuance, characterization, the art and science of creating fiction, etc., etc., as I am, so I could have at least infrequent bullshit sessions about Heinlein with them, or him, or perhaps even her.

(That last pronoun is the most wishful of wishful thinking. I’ve known a few female Heinlein fans, and invariably, they’re always obsessed with the really godawful Heinlein fiction, like To Sail Beyond The Sunset, for which RAH should really have been slapped quite hard at some point before he died, and they hate all the really good Heinlein fiction, like Puppet Masters, or even Friday, because, as one of them once put it, "Friday acts like a guy with boobs,” which I’d take as a damning indictment indeed, except this particular woman thinks Chris Claremont is an amazing feminist writer whose female characterizations are the most credible and powerful ever done in superhero comic books, so, you see what I’m dealing with here.)

But, I don’t. (Know any other Heinlein fans at present, personally. Come on. I know it’s hard, but try to keep up.) In fact, I know very few actual science fiction fans these days; they just seem to be thin on the ground around here. And I have to admit, I tend to deliberately avoid all real world gathering places for SF fans, because SF fans are geeks, and while I myself am also an avowed and freely admitted member of the geek tribe, that doesn’t mean I like my fellow geeks all that much, especially when numbers of them are gathered in any one place at one time, wearing Xena t-shirts and chanting strange things about the instability of the Ringworld.

So, I have all this Heinlein stuff percolating around in my brain, because I’m an avid reader of his work, and I’m a wannabe professional SF writer myself, and Heinlein is one of my largest literary influences (and all my other influences were influenced by Heinlein, so there you go) and I’m very analytical, and I have no outlet for it at all. So... having read a lot of the material on the website sited above, I think I’ll use some of it as a jumping off point for my own rambling and pointless commentary on much of the work of Robert A. Heinlein.

So, let’s talk about Starship Troopers since two of the articles I read on this site were about that particularly controversial Heinlein near-juvenile.

James Gifford, in excellently written and quite lucid prose, exhaustively and comprehensively makes the case that in Troopers, the ‘Federal Service’ that people sign up for and serve in so that they may gain the franchise and become a full Class A citizen of Heinlein’s hypothetical ideal society in the future, is an entirely military service. Gifford’s approach is cogent and irrefutable, except for the fact, as he notes, that Robert A. Heinlein himself says he’s all wet. Gifford’s response to this is unequivocal: Heinlein, when speaking about a book he wrote himself, is simply wrong.

Gifford is, in addition to being a skilled writer and cogent analyst, an extraordinarily confident man. This shows itself most uninhibitedly in the passage where he also indicates categorically that every single instance of past life recollection has been completely and utterly debunked and is just plain rubbish and that Heinlein’s defense of the Bridey Murphy case was clearly erroneous, doubtless caused by Heinlein drinking too much cough syrup that morning, and is undoubtedly something Heinlein would have disavowed, given a chance before his statement in that regard was set in type.

As with my one-time date who believes Friday to be a man with boobs yet Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, and Dark Phoenix to be completely three-dimensional and utterly convincing portrayals of femininity, I can only goggle with bemusement at this. And not simply for the obvious reasons, namely, that not having been personally present at every occurrence where supposed past-life memories have been recalled by hypnosis, and really having no idea as to the credentials, backgrounds, and/or agendas of the people doing the recollecting, the hypnotists doing the regression, or the folks who are writing the articles doing the utter and comprehensive debunking of same, I would never venture an opinion on such a thing, much less a completely, flatly, totally unequivocal and utterly authoritative one such as Gifford sets forth.

Similarly, there are many things I would do before I would flatly state that any author was simply and completely in error about his or her own work, and some of them involve snake handling, and I really hate snakes.

Last but not least, either of the two bizarrely incredible activities above become wildly likely choices for me, compared to the odds of me ever taking it on myself to state, on behalf of any other human being, that, since I admire that human being and that human being has just made a statement I myself consider to be ridiculous, therefore, I am absolutely certain that this human being I admire didn’t really mean it, and must have been suffering from a concussion, and would have taken it back, if only the meanies at Baen Books hadn’t rushed his patently absurd statement into print before he could.

I am, of course, paraphrasing Mr. Gifford all over the place, not merely to make a point but to get cheap laughs, as well... a literary conceit I am very aware has never won me friends or admirers in the past and ain’t really likely to start doing so now. Yet, the fact remains: there may be others in the world who feel comfortable stating their opinions as if they were actual physical laws of the universe. I simply am not one of them, and even if I were, I think I would have to draw the line at making such comprehensively dismissive statements about something I know very little about (like a large body of past-life memory recall work) or cannot possibly claim to be an authority on (like another human being’s innermost thoughts and feelings).

But, you know, that’s me. And just because Gifford’s comprehensive and thorough and remarkably well-written article makes me instantly think of Colin Wilson’s musing that he wishes he was as certain of anything as James Randall is of everything, nonetheless, the fact remains that I, personally, don’t really care whether or not the Federal Service depicted in Starship Troopers in entirely military or not, and, swear to God, fellas, I find it difficult to understand why anyone else cares, either. If there’s a civil service, non-military aspect to Federal Service, does it make Starship Troopers a better or worse book? I don’t think so.

But this does bring up something I’ve longed to sit down and type up and then put in the ear of every other Heinlein fan I have ever met, so I’ll take the opportunity to do so now. But first, let me explicate a little further.

Gifford’s very well written and quite exhaustive argument over what is, actually, an extremely minor and bafflingly inconsequential point, as well as Heinlein’s later insistence on something that Gifford himself makes a very persuasive argument is simply wrong, on the face of it, based on the published text Heinlein himself wrote and submitted and then, was later commenting on, brings up something that has always troubled me, on the occasions in the past when I have spoken with other Heinlein fans:

It never ceases to amaze me... hmmm... yes, that’s true, really, it never does... when someone just simply assumes that, because they like the creative product of a certain talented person, therefore, that talented person must be some infallible godlike being whose every aspect of existence is perfect and wonderful and completely worthy of the most abject and unfailing worship.

Yet, most people seem to do this. People love professional athletes, and when the professional athlete gets drunk in a bar and punches someone out, or has sex with someone he isn’t married to, people simply go ballistic. People love a certain actor or actress, and they’ll actually go out and buy a product that the actor or actress goes on TV and states that they think is spiffy, just because they love that actor or actress. Beautiful women want to have sex with Rush Limbaugh, and not just because they’re obviously addle-headed dimbulb conservative bimbos without a brain in their head, as seems obvious, but also because they genuinely and deeply seem to find that vast sack of wind and cellulite sexually arousing. And, in the case of certain writers like Heinlein, people love Heinlein’s writing, so they simply assume that Heinlein himself is this astonishing superhuman entity and all his opinions and viewpoints must be absolutely correct and irrefutable.

In short, Heinlein fans, other than me, seem to worship Heinlein himself, rather than simply admiring his brilliant and nearly always supremely entertaining writing.

It’s odd. Stephen King is the most massively popular writer in the history of the human race, and yet, in all the conversations I’ve had with even the most moronic of Stephen King fans, none of them have expressed any belief that as a person, King is anything much more than a big goofy fella who drinks a lot of beer and gets his wife’s bad novels published.

And yet, Heinlein... well, my God. (Indeed, in fact, ‘my God’ seems to be the appropriate phrase to set after Heinlein, in the eyes of every other Heinlein fan in the world.) ‘This is Heinlein’ is the phrase that rings like a church bell through nearly every passage of Larry Niven’s always interesting and entertaining time travel story, “The Return of William Proxmire,” in which a crazy politician funds the building of a time machine for the sole purpose of traveling back to the early part of Heinlein’s life and curing his consumption, which will, of course, completely alter our history and make the world a utopia. I love this story, and it’s obviously a story that’s a labor of love as well, and it’s also, obviously, completely deranged. But this is how Heinlein fans feel about him... this is not just a great science fiction writer, this, this fella right here, this guy, he’s a pivotal point in human history.

So much so, in fact, that an obviously completely devoted Heinlein fan like Mr. Gifford will spend thousands of words and god knows how many man-hours arguing a minor and essentially trivial point about the nature of an entirely fictional social aspect of an entirely fictional future society in one rather short book.

So much so that these fans will hound and hound and hound Heinlein over this same entirely trivial point until, in utter exasperation, he gives a flatly unequivocal statement that anyone without the hubris of a god themselves would simply have to accept is, indeed, the final authority on the matter, except for the curious fact, as Mr. Gifford points out exhaustively and at length, that this unequivocal, flatly authoritative and irrefutable statement can, in fact, be refuted, and is, in fact, refuted by the published text of the book itself. Often.

Now, again, I don’t care if the Federal Service in Starship Troopers is entirely military or primarily military with a few non-military civil service jobs tossed into the mix or is, as Heinlein tries to convince everyone a long time after Troopers’ publication, 95% non-military civil service and only 5% military. Doesn’t matter to me. I still like the book, and I won’t like it any more or less whichever way it comes out, and quite frankly, I’m quite capable of believing that the published text clearly states that the service is entirely military, but in point of fact, the published text is wrong and Heinlein is right, because Heinlein wrote a military novel about a militarily-minded protagonist who lives in a military fantasy reality tunnel and who only interacts with others who dwell in the same reality tunnel; and, therefore, there could easily be a lot of non-military civil type Federal Service positions for those who can’t qualify for the military, it’s just that military personnel don’t talk about those, because if you want one of those positions, you go in a different door at the Federal Service sign-up building.

Actually, what I suspect even more is that Federal Service is 95% civil service/5% military service, in peacetime. However, the proportions rather switch around in wartime, and Starship Troopers is written in wartime. And that’s probably the simplest explanation to reconcile the text of the book, which is a book about war written in a time of war, and Heinlein’s statement, which is a much after the fact, retrospective, and generalized one about the overall society itself.

However, that’s not what’s interesting to me. What’s interesting to me is that all this argument and obfuscation comes out of one clear, simple impulse that we can see writ large through everything I’ve sited previously to this... Gifford’s own essay, in which Heinlein makes a statement Gifford finds embarrassing and stupid about past life memory recall, so he effectively disavows it from his hero/god’s actual thinking; Niven’s short story, in which Heinlein is seen as the fulcrum about which human destiny pivots, and the perceived need Heinlein felt, in response to probably decades of hounding by his worshipful fans to please clarify that he’s not the kind of nutball who honestly believes the ideal society could only be run by military veterans, to actually clarify that, and say, yes, yes, yes, you’re right, that would be nuts, and that’s not what I meant, now please for the love of God shut up about it.

Heinlein’s fans seem to think that they have to agree with every single opinion voiced by Heinlein.

Me, I happen to think Heinlein was an ornery, rather dotty political extremist who, it just so happens, was also one of the finest writers of the 20th century, at least, of the kind of fast-paced, hard-hitting, heroic adventure fiction I like to read. He had a great imagination and was capable of extrapolating from current social and technological trends in ways that were always interesting and entertaining. He was also an intelligent and often insightful social commentator. And, he was also craaaaaaazy as a loon in many, many ways. Heinlein’s undeniable nuttiness did not make his good books any less good, although, unfortunately, it did make all his bad books spectacularly bad.

Now, I went through my own stage of believing that I had to agree with every single nutball opinion or viewpoint that came out of every single nutball Robert A. Heinlein alpha male (or, later on, alpha female) larynx. Joe Gilead would make a commentary about how all cops were necessarily crooked, I would nod my head like a little bobble head doll and make a note for the future... all cops are necessarily crooked, Keep Bribe Money Handy. Lazarus Long would give some long-winded speech about how a real human being should be able to do any of 75 different ridiculous things nobody but a 2,000-year old super genius would have the time or native talent to learn or even remotely want to do, and I’d go, “geez, I better go stick my head in the oven right now because I’m never gonna learn all that shit.” Potiphar Breen would comment on the two greatest pleasures in life being killing a man and having a woman, and I’d think, “hey, that’s deeply sociopathic... no, wait, Heinlein wrote it... gosh... it must be true, guess I’ll go kill somebody and then have me his wife.” And yet, I never did that last thing, because right around there, after spending most of my adolescence and early adulthood reading Heinlein, it occurred to me that Heinlein was a brilliantly talented whack job, and I didn’t have to take his social or philosophical assertions any more seriously than I had to take, say, Jerry Pournelle’s.

Which was, believe me, a huge relief.

And yet, most Heinlein fans never seem to get to that point; all of them, in fact, that I’ve encountered seem to spend an inordinate amount of time expounding all the Heinlein opinions and viewpoints they themselves fervently agree with, while the more thoughtful among them spend an equal amount of time trying to tinker with, analyze, rationalize, justify, and if necessary, refute, explain away, and apologize for, the truly nutball and utterly whacked out statements their hero has made that they cannot, as rational human beings of any philosophical stripe, agree with or reconcile with anything remotely resembling sanity.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2004 by D. A. Madigan

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