Review of "Robert A. Heinlein," by William H. Patterson, Jr.

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 12, 2010


In Dialogue With His Century, Volume 1 1907-1948: Learning Curve

By William H. Patterson Jr.

Tor. 622 pp. $29.99

Picture a Saturday morning during one of those endless summers of the late 1950s and early '60s. A boy climbs on his red Schwinn bicycle and rides like the wind to the public library, then to several drugstores and thrift shops. He is on a mission. He is looking desperately for a book, any book, by Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988), the greatest science-fiction writer in the world.

The greatest? Back then, few adolescent sf readers would have seriously questioned such a cosmic truth. Isaac Asimov's "Foundation Trilogy" was certainly cool (Hari Seldon! Psychohistory!), and Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" could be poetic, scary and ghoulish almost at the same time, and, yes, Alfred Bester's "The Stars My Destination" just might be the single best sf novel of them all, but Heinlein was . . . Heinlein.

Today, one can see that Heinlein's gift lay in blending relentless pulp-magazine action with a laid-back storytelling voice somewhat reminiscent of Mark Twain. Just read the ingratiating paragraph that opens "The Door Into Summer," published in 1957: "One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it would not be a desirable rental because of the fallout, but we liked it then, Pete and I." Who would not want to hear more from such a likable, easygoing narrator? Yet Heinlein, who first published in the magazines Astounding and Unknown, could also hook a reader with a quick eight words, as in the first sentence of his sf juvenile of that same year, "Citizen of the Galaxy": " 'Lot number ninety-seven,' the auctioneer announced, 'a boy.' "

It's important to stress Heinlein's undoubted importance as a genre writer because much of this first installment in William Patterson's two-part life focuses on a man who never intended to publish fiction. Indeed, Patterson -- editor and publisher of the Heinlein Journal -- views his subject as culturally far more than just a writer. As he says, in his sometimes flowery way: "The story of Robert A. Heinlein is the story of America in the twentieth century." Patterson even asserts -- and will presumably discuss more fully in Vol. 2 -- that Heinlein "galvanized not one, but four social movements of his century: science fiction and its stepchild, the policy think tank, the counterculture, the libertarian movement, and the commercial space movement."

A military influence

Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., the young Heinlein could have modeled for one of Horatio Alger's boy heroes -- or one of his own later, omni-competent protagonists: Bob sold magazine subscriptions at 12 and by 15 was self-supporting. He delivered newspapers, worked as a janitor, helped out at the library. He read his way through the Harvard Classics while maintaining his enthusiasm for the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.G. Wells.

Like many go-getters of that era, Heinlein took several public speaking courses, corrected a stutter well enough so that he became a skilled debater, and eventually came to style himself a free-thinker and progressive-minded socialist. Yet Heinlein -- nothing if not ardently patriotic all his life -- also admired the military virtues. After graduation from high school, he organized a year-long campaign, one that included gathering 50 letters of recommendation, to secure a much-coveted appointment to the Naval Academy.

While at Annapolis, Heinlein majored in aeronautical engineering, joined the fencing team and withstood some sadistic hazing and two tragedies: His high school sweetheart died suddenly from appendicitis, and his beloved 7-year-old sister fell out of the family car and was run over and killed. The driver was Heinlein's father, who was psychologically destroyed by the accident.

Once commissioned, Heinlein was assigned to an aircraft carrier, the USS Lexington, then captained by Ernest J. King, who quickly became Heinlein's ideal of what a man, not just a naval officer, should be. King paid attention to detail, commanded obedience and inspired loyalty, was just in his punishments and willing to buck orders when they uselessly endangered his men. In essence, he provided inspiration for the many gruff father-figures that dominate Heinlein's fiction. Though something of a maverick, King later rose to become commander of the fleet and chief of naval operations during World War II. Let it be noted that this reviewer proudly graduated from Admiral King High School.

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