Heinlein: the Man, the Myth, the Whack Job
by D. A. Madigan
Part 1 appears in this issue.
And having said all that, let me say this: Heinlein had a great deal to say about stuff in general, and he said it for the most part through his fiction. A lot of my favorite writers do this; John D. MacDonald called this ‘the mini-sermon’, and Heinlein did it more than nearly anybody. Often times he did it well, mortaring his own social commentary and philosophy into various books that were still so generally entertaining and fast-moving and action-packed and stuffed to the gunwales with interesting characterizations and memorable, Clemensesque dialogue that you just really didn’t notice that for the entire length of this particular novel you’d been being beaten about the head and shoulders with a clarion call for the absolute and unrestricted right of the private individual to bear arms as well as a chilling depiction of the utter depraved evil that must follow upon any attempts by any authority to remove said right or said arms from said private individuals in any way, shape or form, ever, at all, the end.
Starship Troopers is, in my opinion, one of the books he did this philosophical camouflage trick very well in, but that seems to only be my opinion, since other people have been arguing over the social and philosophical viewpoints and opinions in this book for thirty or forty goddam years now. Me, I just think it’s an excellent and brilliantly written military fiction action/adventure, and I don’t much worry about the fact that I believe that at the point Heinlein wrote it, in the high state of emotional piss-off he was doubtless suffering from, he no doubt was of the fervent non-intellectual belief that a society entirely run by military veterans was the only hope the human race had of survival and prosperity.
I wouldn’t worry about it even if I didn’t know Heinlein had calmed down and come back to something more closely approaching sanity after Troopers was published, and the reason I wouldn’t worry about it is simple: Heinlein’s personal opinions on stuff don’t trouble me, I just like reading his writing.
And, honestly, I don’t think that last point can be emphasized enough. The subtext of Farmer in the Sky is rabidly anti-United Nations; I don’t care. The social context of Starman Jones is droolingly anti-union; I shrug and watch Max and Ellie struggle to get free of the evil centauroids. Dear addled, chesty Friday rants and raves about how all civil service workers are greedy, worthless, inherently corrupt subhumans; I, a civil service worker for metropolitan government for several years now, think to myself “Blow me, living artifact bitch,” and continue enjoying Heinlein’s excellent prose style while really wishing there were pictures in the book of Friday and Janet in the shower together.
Heinlein was just a (massively talented, brilliantly gifted) human being. He was highly opinionated, like many of us, and he put a lot of his most deeply cherished personal beliefs into his writing. Some of them, like his unswerving love for individual liberty and freedom of expression and thought and belief and speech, I and nearly everyone I know can agree with. Others of them, like most of those I’ve detailed above, I heartily disagree with. And yet, none of the opinions evidenced in Heinlein’s various books keep me from enjoying the good ones.
In fact, a really good example of how I simply don’t much care about the subtext even when it’s just plain frickin nuts, is The Puppet Masters. I love The Puppet Masters, especially the stripped-down, streamlined, intelligently-edited, rather more slender version of the book that was the only one in print for decades prior to Heinlein’s death and the post mortem ‘restoration’ of the ‘unedited’ ms. that is what’s available on the stands today.
That first version is an insanely hyperkinetic, blunt-trauma absolute good vs. absolute evil blood-chilling horror/SF novel that moves with the accelerating velocity of a ballistic missile and that is, in every way and on every level, a deeply satisfying read. I have read and reread it probably a hundred times and if I live another forty years I will read and reread it a hundred more. I love that novel, and it doesn’t even remotely trouble me that Sam is a violent psychotic, Mary is a deeply and irrevocably damaged neurotic, the Old Man is a sociopath, and the central romantic relationship is one of the most deeply twisted dom/sub sado-masochistic freak shows I have ever seen presented in supposed mainstream fiction.
Nor do all the various very subtle little social details of the particularly nightmarish future society Heinlein depicts in that book trouble me overly, either. The Federal government has permanent addresses for all its citizenry on file, that can be called up with a thumbprint? I don’t care. The President has a top secret intelligence agency that spies on all his other intelligence agencies and that has satellite surveillance over the entire United States? I shrug. The most powerful men in our government are not overly concerned with international law and perfectly willing to launch an attack on other countries because of an alien invasion? Apathy is my watchword. It’s a great book, a vastly entertaining story, and honestly, that’s what I paid my money for. The philosophical notations and insights of Robert A. Heinlein come as a little extra added bonus, and sometimes I find them interesting, but they do not, to me, make any particular difference in whether or not a really good Heinlein book is good or not.
Now, having gotten this far and pretty much utterly alienated every other Heinlein fan in the world (or at least those few who will ever read this) let me go on to make them all absolutely determined to take down their rifles (all Heinlein fans own rifles except me) and come hunting me here where the streets have no name... (actually, my street has a name, I just needed a good, memorable phrase there for cadence and style)... by listing all of what I consider to be the ‘bad’ Heinlein books.
I’ve done this at a few other points in the past, and it always manages to infuriate at least one person out there in whatever audience I have at the time. I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, and honestly, a difference of opinion never surprises me, but what always does take me a little aback is that it’s not simply that on this list there is some book that somebody out there absolutely treasures. That I can understand. I’ve spoken with SF fans who simply do not like, for random example, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light , and that always baffles me, and there are a lot of people out there who read everything Piers Anthony has ever written and seem to genuinely adore every word, and that perplexes me, too. But what’s kind of appalling about the reaction I get to this list of Bad Heinlein Books is not that it’s simply people saying “you’re crazy, Farnham’s Freehold is truly great science fiction,” which would only make me think the writer of such a sentiment stupid but not deranged, but it’s usually people absolutely screaming at me that Heinlein did not write any bad books and if I don’t like any of Heinlein’s books then clearly I am subhuman scum, I do not possess actual sentience, and when I come before the Judgement Seat, Heinlein is gonna beat me with his cane and then cast me into hell for all eternity for my intolerable impertinence.
But, quailing before what I know must now come, I hereby present my list of Bad (actually, Really Rotten and Lousy) Heinlein Books:
Rocket Ship Galileo
I Will Fear No Evil
The Number of the Beast
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
To Sail Beyond The Sunset
To this list, I will also add a few others I consider to be bad, or at least, unsuccessful, SF novels, in that in these efforts, in my opinion, Heinlein loses his perpetual battle to disguise his social and philosophical musing within the context of an engaging story, and instead, ends up producing interesting satirical tracts rather than good, solid adventure stories:
Stranger In A Strange Land
Beyond This Horizon
Out of 34 independent Heinlein works (not counting the Campbell-plotted Sixth Column), these are the half a dozen I think are simply out and out, undeniable stinkers. That’s a little more than 1/6th of Heinlein’s output, which I think, for a very prolific writer who produced work over the course of three or four decades of his life, is a pretty good score. Zelazney has tossed off quite a few more genuine clunkers proportionally than Heinlein has, and, in fact, I can’t think of a prolific author in any field who hasn’t excreted some real literary loads on occasion.
And yet, if ten other Heinlein fans ever read this article, nine of them will want me dead, not because I included one of their all-time childhood favorite SF novels in the universe on the shit list, but because I had the sheer effrontery to even create a shit list from Heinlein’s divinely inspired body of work.
But, so I don’t get accused of simply making emotional and unfounded statements (not that it will matter, if I fully support my statements, I’ll simply be accused of being a worthless geek-troll, but what the hell), let’s discuss each entry on the Shit List for at least a paragraph so I can detail exactly why I didn’t like each of these novels:
Rocket Ship Galileo
While this wasn’t Heinlein’s first novel (that was If This Goes On, a much, much better book) it reads as if it was. Heinlein was obviously finding his way here, and it should be noted that this was, very much, his first novel written in the third person, which, as a somewhat experienced if unpublished novelist myself, I know is hard to write in... much harder than writing first person. Heinlein also seems to very much have simply written RSG to meet a deadline and get a paycheck. It seems to me like a very unimaginative attempt by someone other than Heinlein to write a Heinlein juvenile; almost as if Heinlein didn’t realize he could write books to order and still say what he wanted to say and tell an interesting, intelligent story. Beyond those notes, I’ll just say “Nazis on the moon!!” and leave it at that.
I Will Fear No Evil
Honestly, I hate this book, and it’s hard to sort out just why I hate it so much, since I hate it so much. Heinlein has this tendency to separate ‘juvenile’ from ‘adult’ by whether or not he can put sex in his story, and I think his best novels (Puppet Masters, Podkayne of Mars, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Double Star, and The Door Into Summer) come out of Heinlein forgetting that momentarily and simply writing novels for grown-ups that are paced and plotted as if he were writing a juvenile for Scribner & Sons.
Often times, his worst novels seem to be driven almost entirely by Heinlein’s realization that, hey, he can put sex in this one, so what the hell, let’s put a lot of sex in it. Since Heinlein’s attitudes towards sex strike me as being pretty clearly those of someone who grew up in a viciously repressed society and who probably, in six or seven decades of adulthood, never once got laid really, really well (and I’m right there with you, buddy), I think his books with a lot of sex in them are always kind of embarrassing and uncomfortable. IWFNE is, unfortunately, pretty much entirely about sex... the kind of sex Heinlein seems to wistfully wish he could have had at some point in his life, instead of... well... let’s not go there. Anyway, IWFNE has its fans who call it a brilliant exploration of social and sexual mores and roles in a society gradually giving way from repressiveness to decadence, and that’s all well and good. I think it’s just a long, frustrated porn novel with all the really good sex scenes deleted. Beyond that, I hate every character in the book, loathe the society depicted in the book, and wish to God the book had a plot, or at the very least that, at any point within the narrative, some evil aliens had showed up so Joan Eunice could lift her head out of Winnie or Jake’s lap for a moment and shoot them with a blaster, just to, for one brief transitory second, have something actually happen I or anyone else would remotely enjoy reading about.
I have had several Heinlein fans expound to me for lengthy periods about why this isn’t a racist book, and they’re just doing what all Heinlein fans but me do... desperately trying to keep from believing that their hero-god had any actual human flaws. Look, folks... Heinlein was born in a deeply racist society. Like most of us white guys who were born and raised in 20th-century America, he was a racist. We can’t help it. He took admirable steps to get over it, like many of us have.
But he was a racist, and this is a racist book, and beyond being a racist book, it’s a bad book. Hugh Farnham is without a doubt Heinlein’s most loathsome male character, his concubine Barbara is the most brainlessly dependent and useless Heinlein female that RAH ever attempted to portray in a positive manner, the future world they find themselves hurled into along with their utterly vile and noxious cast of co-dependents is, in and of itself, the most simultaneously stupid and horribly bigoted future society Heinlein (or any other non-card carrying Illinois neo-Nazi) has ever created, and, honest to God, this is just a really, really bad book. Its plot is stupid and essentially pointless. You cannot possibly care about any of its characters. The only really interesting and memorable image in the book comes at the very end, when Hugh and Barb have set up their trading post in bomb-shattered America; if Heinlein had written that book, it might have been as good as, I don’t know, Alas, Babylon or Systemic Shock, and ranked up there with great nuclear Armageddon fiction throughout the ages. But he didn’t; instead he wrote this virulently racist tract in which the evil darkies take over the world and start eating all the white people like cattle. It’s a deranged xenophobic nightmare worthy of any Klan Kleagle, and even if it weren’t, this would still be a lousy excuse for an SF adventure.
The Number of the Beast
The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
To Sail Beyond The Sunset
Ah, the World as Myth concept... living proof that Heinlein really was losing some of the dots off his dominoes as he got older. Yes, he managed to get the shreds of his sanity back together long enough to produce two good books during this period (Friday and Job), but after each of them he’d promptly dive back off the deep end of utter self-indulgent lunacy that was represented by these monstrous wastes of paper and ink.
Look... I understand that when a writer or artist becomes an absolute master of their art form, they are then allowed, perhaps even encouraged, to explore various different creative conceits and techniques that lesser talents simply should not even remotely attempt. And I’ve heard this argument over and over again... sure, in the hands of a lesser writer, the idea of the characters in a novel actually discovering that they are characters in a novel, and the very fact that they are fictional characters inhabiting a fictional artifact being woven intrinsically into the plot as a driver for otherwise inexplicable (and frankly stupid) story events, would be undeniably a bad and lousy and rotten concept... but this is Heinlein. If anyone can carry off the World As Myth idea and make it work... if anyone can do a really good series of books based on the concept that the heroes actually are characters in a work of fiction, and they know that, and the writer’s whim is a justifiable and fully acceptable explanation for otherwise utterly unexplainable plot occurrences... it would be him.
Well, guess what, folks... I agree with you. If anyone could bring it off, it would be Heinlein, and he failed spectacularly, so no one can bring it off, so please, let’s STOP TRYING, okay? And just admit, the whole idea sucks, and these were lousy books, and stop apologizing for them, already.
Oh, and when you have trouble as a writer keeping your various different crusty but lovable alpha male characters distinct because they all have essentially the same personality and voice... here’s a hint... don’t write a book where they all end up in the same room talking to each other.
I mean, please.
Now, as to Stranger In A Strange Land, Beyond This Horizon, and Glory Road, I don’t think these are godawful garbage on a level with the Bad Books List above. I do think they’re bad, or rather, failures as, novels, because I think in these books, the philosophy completely overwhelms the rather rudimentary vestiges of a plot Heinlein tries to throw in around the philosophy, to persuade us that these are actually adventure novels, rather than, you know, Swiftian satirical tracts. I think the characters tend to be rather wooden, the dialogue ain’t such a much, the stories are just plain tired if not outright silly, and unlike in his better books, Heinlein simply does not hide the ‘mini-sermons’ very well. These are the illusions of a tired magician who has done too many successive matinees without a vacation; we can see the cards up the shabby tuxedo sleeves and the rabbit’s whiskers are protruding through the air holes of that top hat’s secret compartment.
But all these books are very much worth reading; all of them are interesting as satirical social tracts and philosophical exercises, even if the reader, like me, finds him or herself disagreeing with virtually every single point Heinlein makes about society.
Now, having gotten this far (5,921 words, not counting this parenthetical statement), I realize I’ve mentioned quite a whole lot about James Gifford’s very well written and extremely cogent article on Starship Troopers, and haven’t said a damned word about Christopher Weuve’s equally entertaining article comparing the novel and movie versions of Starship Troopers.
However, that’s mostly because I have very little to say. I suspect it’s very possible that, for example, if someone gave me three camcorders and a dozen or so gifted volunteers, I could, using only common household objects and the street grid surrounding my apartment complex, shoot a rather better and more faithful version of, say, The Puppet Masters than was put on screen a few years back.
Nonetheless, that’s not how movies get made and distributed in the real world; how movies get made and distributed in the real world is via a process which involves a great many people, many of whom will be spectacularly ignorant idiots, often pursuing their own agendas which have a lot to do with making money and getting laid and very little to do with actually creating a good movie out of a brilliant and beloved book that will in some discernible way retain some recognizable resemblance to said brilliant and beloved book.
Do I think that such people should be forbidden by law or simply prevented by heavily armed vigilante action from making movies out of Heinlein books? I do. Do I expect that to happen? I don’t. Am I therefore surprised when big budget movies supposedly based on Heinlein books appear and stink like rotting seaweed from one end of the ecosphere to the other? I am not. I expect absolutely nothing of Hollywood, and therefore, am occasionally pleasantly surprised (the Lord of the Rings adaptation, at least, the first chapter, was really astonishingly good).
I will say that my biggest disappointment in Starship Troopers: The Bad Movie was not the lack of powered armor, or the bizarre substitution of violent sadism for thoughtful (if frequently insane) social philosophy, or even the fact that, as Mr. Weuve points out quite hilariously, the military tactics and strategy of the elite Mobile Infantry in this movie consist of running in big mobs towards the computer-animated special effects, and then, a few minutes later, running in big mobs away from same while screaming in badly simulated terror.
No, my biggest disappointment was that, in a movie featuring Denise Richards in a leading role, and in which every single other actress found some occasion, however contrived or utterly idiotic, to show us her tits and ass, and in which Denise Richards herself had some totally ridiculous love scenes specifically inserted into the continuity apparently for no reason other than to show us her tits and ass as well, she still didn’t show us her tits and ass, and frankly, I find that appalling and unacceptable and just plain darned mean.
I could blather and prattle on endlessly about Heinlein, I really could, but I think I’ve enraged my potential audience quite enough for one occasion, so I’ll just close this by reiterating: Heinlein. Great writer. Total whack job. Love his writing. Leave his opinions where you find them.
The fans respond! (Not my fans, certainly, but...) SEE what one Heinlein fan has to say about my dotty, near-senile, completely objectionable opinions about Heinlein, at BILL OF GOODS: The Words of a Heinlein Fan Much Like Every Other Heinlein Fan I’ve Ever Met, But More Polite. Available NOW, True Believer! Hit that link and watch me get beat up!
Copyright © 2004 by D. A. Madigan