Run for cover, America! The Grand Master is thundering again. Politics? A quagmire of cowardice and venality. Education? Mere cretinous day-care. Inflation? Sinful. The military? A travesty of neglect.
The G.M. whacks his cane into the floor.
"I think this culture's in bad shape. Take a look around you." Not literally, of course, since you're perched in a pine-tangy glade atop the Santa Cruz Mountains. Look out, instead, over the state of the nation, project and amplify its woes, and find the ominous outline of the future.
That is the trademark purview of Robert Anson Heinlein -- curmudgeon, seer, commie-wary patriot and eccentric enigma -- who according to The Science Fiction Encyclopedia "has been by far the most influential author in modern American sf." He modestly concurs: "I didn't work into the mainstream," he says. "The mainstream came to me."
At 77, he has published four dozen books and scores of stories since his start in 1939, all of them still in print tens of millions of copies later. He is consistently voted "best all-time author" in readers' polls, primus inter pares in the sf triumvirate beside his old friends Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. ("We don't compete with each other, we just compete with the market.")
The winner of a record four Hugo awards for novels, chosen as the first Nebula Grand Master, he invented (in fiction) the waterbed and the "slidewalk"; coined the terms "free fall" and "astrogation," as well as "grok" (his word for intuitive understanding, now enshrined in Webster's) and "waldo," engineer's shorthand for servomechanisms; and scripted the first serious space movie, "Destination Moon" (1950). Author/critic H. Bruce Franklin calls him "perhaps more than any other single person, responsible for the popularization in America of the concept of space travel and for the commitment to undertake it."
Yet he is probably best known for his 1961 religious parable, "Stranger in a Strange Land," which (though "I certainly didn't expect it to") mesmerized a generation and lit the first dawn on the Age of Aquarius. And now he has returned to apocalypse in his new best selling novel "Job: A Comedy of Justice."
He at first appears feeble, this old man with the trembling hands and halting, cane-propped shuffle. In 1978, he suffered a near stroke from a blocked carotid artery that temporarily paralyzed one side of his body and left him to choose between the Damocles sword of massive seizure or the scalpel of a risky operation. He took the surgery, beat the odds, and immediately wrote "The Number of the Beast" (1980) -- four lubricious characters on a romp through various universes -- "to see if my brain would work." (Many critics said No.)
Yet his voice has a resonant, Cronkitean brio as he deftly summons Latin epigrams, quotes Twain or Kipling, sings World War II songs, or gins up one of his labored pronunciations. (Jules Verne is a lavishly epiglottal Zhool Vehhhrn and L.A. becomes Lowhs AHHN-gell-ace.) Discussing prowlers, he will suddenly brandish his stick. "I know how to use it, too -- I took Japanese cane-fighting at the Naval Academy." And now that a new novel is finished, he and his wife Ginny are about to leave for an arduous shipboard trek from Greenland through the old Northwest Passage, past the North Pole and on to Tokyo.
No shortage of contradictions. He is an ardent militarist and Naval Academy graduate who believes the draft is slavery and the armed forces pathetically inept. A man living on the edge of tomorrow whose thoughts seem trapped in the past; a former Annapolis dueling champion and expert marksman with a very soft spot for his orange cat, Pixel. "I have a theory that cats are going to take over. After all, we're obviously on the skids. This whole house is run for the comfort and benefit of that one little tomcat." A detester of big government who calls the Korean and Vietnam wars "scandalous disasters," yet shocked an audience of midshipmen in 1973 by telling them that America faced "possible extinction" since "any nation that loses its patriotic fervor" is doomed. A Special Place
Which explains the big American flag snapping defiantly in front of the G.M.'s singular dwelling. One story high, flat-roofed and perfectly round, it looks like it might have just landed here in this clearing amid five acres of redwood and oak -- except for the lush landscaping accomplished by his wife, a member of the British Royal Horticultural Society.
The G.M. designed the place himself "for our old age -- you can get a wheelchair around anywhere." The rooms radiate in pie-like wedges from a central glass-walled atrium: "I've got 90 degrees, she's got 90 degrees and we have 180 degrees in common." The only seating in the living room is a long sofa built into the curve of the wall, redolent of the sets for "2001" -- an effect enhanced by the color pictures taken from space, the models of rockets and the B-1 bomber ("she can carry up to 16 bombs, I think," he murmurs approvingly, running a fond finger down the fuselage),the Kelly Freas painting of "Star Trek's" Lt. Uhura, the wedge-shaped dining-room table with its concealed control panel for lights and sound, the giant TV rig ("damaging to the country almost as much as drugs") which he used to tape the Olympics. Oddly anomalous: the delicate baby grand, a replacement gift to Ginny, whose instrument was sacrificed in the early penury of their marriage. "We lived in a trailer then," the G.M. says, "and for the first three months we ate her piano."
Virtually every free wall holds Heinlein's vast and jealously guarded library ("I wouldn't lend a book to my dying mother") which, like so much else here, is meticulously labeled with little plastic tape strips: volumes in the bookcase full of his own works ("First U.S. Trade Edition," "British," "German," etc.) or in the bathroom, where the waste bin is marked "waste" and a switch on the wall reads "exhaust fan."
They've been here since 1965 when, after 18 years in Colorado Springs, Brooklyn-born Ginny developed mountain sickness. Once it was diagnosed, "we left practically overnight," the G.M. says, and scouted sea-level sites from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Mexico, finally settling on this woody hummock facing the sea, a few miles from the liberal-voting college town he calls "The People's Republic of Santa Cruz." They promptly perimetered the place with a heavy-duty cyclone fence and massive remote-control motorized gate -- a necessity since the youth-cult mania for "Stranger."
"So help me," Heinlein says, "the fans would sit in our laps if we would let 'em. In Colorado, where we didn't have that protection, they would stare in our bathroom windows!" The Heinlein Schedule
"Busy" doesn't quite cover it. Ginny, a former diving champion and competition ice skater, trained as a chemist and retrained as an engineer, speaks eight languages and quotes the "Aeneid" in Latin. She can, Heinlein says, "chew gum, smoke a cigarette, eat, listen to the radio, take a bath and knit all at the same time." She handles the personalized form-letter replies to fan mail (which can top 200 letters a week) on one of their matched pair of Zenith microcomputers, tracks foreign currencies to calculate overseas royalties, reads The Economist cover to cover and recently took up computer programming. He calls her "sweetheart."
As for the G.M., "I haven't worked, on the average, more than three months a year in the last 40 years," although "when you work for yourself, you work when you're working." Moreover, once he's found a story, "I don't rewrite. What I do do is cut. But I do not recast or replot.
"The one I've just finished still untitled took four months -- which is a long time for me." The fastest was a time-travel tale, "The Door Into Summer" (1957), inspired by his former cat in Colorado. "It was the first time that Pixie had seen snow. The house had almost as many doors in it as this one, as well as his own door. But no proper cat will use a cat door as long as he can get a human being to open the people door," which Heinlein did repeatedly. The cat failed to exit. "Ginny spoke up and said, 'He's looking for the door into summer.' And I said, 'Keep quiet -- don't say another word! I ducked into my study and closed the door. Thirteen days later I came out with a novel."
But he spends much time keeping himself informed on such curiosities as the state of the Mendocino Gold marijuana crop, prowling through one of his five sets of the Britannica ("a fiction writer has to know everything") or attacking the huge stack of electronics and aerospace magazines. "He also reads Soldier of Fortune," says Ginny. A not-quite-mortified pause. "Well," he says, "it's great for story ideas -- and they have ads for the most amazing things." And he hobbles off on yet another show-and-tell expedition, returning with Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert's "The Soldier's Handbook" -- a rough-bound volume for which Heinlein paid $100, with chapters on poisons, small arms and explosives.
It's a system that has produced many a best seller, and "Job" could be another. Del Rey is gambling a 150,000-copy first printing on it. "But it's so offbeat," says Ginny, "that we don't know what to expect."
But, of course, they do. In recent years, Heinlein's reviews have been of two kinds: those declaring him an enduring genius; and those dismissing him as a washed-up dimwit who has sacrificed narrative gift to a self-indulgent didacticism and dithering with alternative universes. "Job," a divine-comedic satirical fantasy, is sure to prompt both kinds.
A fictional echo of many issues Heinlein took up in his 1980 collection, "Expanded Universe," it follows the trials of Alex Hergensheimer, a Kansas preacher to whom "the Bible is the literal Word of God" and an executive in an ecumenical morality crusade called "Churches United for Decency." While on a cruise in the South Pacific (having left his shrewish wife at home), he finds himself catapulted into a tortuous series of alternative universes -- and into love with a Danish chambermaid -- all of which sorely try his pride, prejudices and piety. After Armageddon descends, he is obliged to traverse Heaven, Hell and elsewhere in pursuit of justice and his love before the surprise ending.
Heinlein's fiction has always had a topical cast, and "Job" clearly aims at the recent recrudescence of Christian fundamentalism. Not that Heinlein will concede it. "For many, many years I've refused to explain my stories. They're written for entertainment." And besides, "I've been writing on that theme since a story titled 'If This Goes On,' " (1939) which depicts America in thrall to a religious dictatorship. "The capacity for fervent cults in this country runs all through our history," since "so much of our immigration arose for religious reasons. I didn't have to hear about Jerry Falwell to know about that tendency. I've heard Billy Sunday preach." Moreover, as a boy in his native Butler, Mo., he was rocked in the chill bosom of sod-belt Methodism -- prey, as he says, to the "most bigoted" opinions until he encountered Darwin at 13. Growing Up With Pulps
Not that he was any prodigy. In fact, he never wanted to be a writer and came to it by accident. "Look, I write stories for money. What I wanted to be was an admiral. They let me out when I was quite young with a piece of paper that said I was 100 percent disabled" with tuberculosis. "And it's been very difficult for me all my life to work at any job -- to be physically up to it. I took up writing because I needed money. And I continued to write because it's safer than stealing and easier than working."
As a boy, "once I found out about reading I was all in favor of it," glutting himself on dime novels, and later on Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells and Verne. "I've got his complete works in French because I'd heard that his translations were so bad. But they're just as bad in French! He's a good pulp writer, is about all you can say." And, of course, Mark Twain. "I've read everything he ever wrote. Mark Twain has already used up most of the best wisecracks in the English language. Every now and then I go over his work trying to figure out where I can file off the serial numbers."
Heinlein's family was in the farm-implement business, and eventually moved to Kansas City, where his father, an accountant active in the Democratic party, took a job with International Harvester. With seven children and little money, college was unthinkable. So Heinlein, already an officer in the reserves by fudging his age, determined to get enough recommendations for an appointment to a military academy. "The senator told me later that he had 100 letters in his files -- one each for 50 other candidates and 50 for me." (Two other brothers became military officers; a third was a political science professor.)
He graduated in 1929, married his first wife (a subject he will not discuss), and served for five years until he was retired because of the TB. He tried graduate school, but again his health failed. While in a Colorado sanatorium, he bought a share in a silver mine ("I know there's money in silver mining because I put quite a bit in and never got any out") before drifting out to California as a Democratic campaign honcho. In 1938, he ran for a seat in the state assembly, lost and emerged "flat broke."
Providence intruded. He saw an ad in Thrilling Wonder Stories offering $50 for the best amateur story. He sat down to write. What made him think he could do it? "Nobody told me you couldn't. I didn't know any writers. That's why I became a one-draft writer -- I didn't know you were supposed to rewrite." He wrote "Life-Line" -- about a machine that can predict one's death -- in four days, but instead sent it to Astounding Science Fiction, assuming that it "would not be so swamped" with tyro outpourings. Astounding took the piece for $70, and the rest is very lucrative history. (A G.M. Axiom, delivered with a peremptory wag of the cane: "To any question of why, the answer is always money.")
"I had tried to write everything else, too: nonfiction, teen-age girls' stories, the works. But I always came back to science fiction," then a stiff and gimmick-ridden subgenre, which he transformed by example. He pioneered the extrapolative story format, in which present trends are projected into a plausible future, couched his scientific problems in human terms. And rather than baldly describing the wonders of future worlds, he implied them through dialogue and other forms of indirection.
Still, in those days, writing for the "pulp" magazines was only slightly more reputable than owning a dog track. "I remember I was at a cocktail party in 1939. At that time, I had sold seven stories in Hollywood. There was a gal there, so help me a deputy sheriff, she asked me what I did. I said I wrote. She said 'What do you write?' I said 'Pulp.' And she looked at me and said, 'Well, it's not what you do, it's whether you're happy at it, I always say.' "
Pulp writers were paid by the word, and if Heinlein writes fast now, he learned it when speed was of the pecuniary essence. L. Ron "Battlefield Earth" Hubbard, he says, was "the first writer I ever knew to have an electric typewriter. He was supposed to write at about 4,000 words an hour. I dunno about that -- but I've seen him write letters as fast as he could shove the paper in the roller. Actually, I think Isaac [Asimov] is a little faster."
Pseudonyms upped the take. "One of mine enabled me to fill up most of an issue of Astounding with two names -- Anson MacDonald and Robert Heinlein. Both with the same word-rate." Those were the quality monikers. Others -- like Lyle Monroe and Caleb Saunders -- were available at "fire-sale rates" for the cheaper magazines. Later he would be the first to get sf into the "slicks," including the Saturday Evening Post and later yet the first to break $500,000 for a novel, though never leaving the close sodality of the pulpsters and their heirs. In the '40s "there were about 40 sf writers," the G.M. says. "Now there are about 400. And as a rule, they have their friends and associates from inside their own guild. Nobody else is going to understand them when they talk." Along with veterans Clarke, Asimov, Hubbard & Co., Heinlein's best friends include fellow guildsmen Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, among others.
When World War II broke out, he returned to active service as a research engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard's Air Material Center. Also working there were fellow science fiction writers L. Sprague de Camp, Asimov and a Navy lieutenant named Virginia Gerstenfeld. "She was the best engineer I had," the G.M. says. "All the others in the section were male. Give them a problem and they'd make pages of notes and reports. She'd go change into her dungarees and start doing experiments on the lab floor."
They married in 1948, after Heinlein's divorce, and moved to Colorado. The money from "Destination Moon" built the house there, though both left the film-biz world feeling ill-used and worse compensated. Ginny puts it this way: "Everyone in Hollywood is paid more than he's worth. But what he has to go through to get it is worth more than he's paid." Still, these days "we do a good business in options," says the G.M. "Everybody in Hollywood has tried to write a script for 'Stranger.' It's belonged to five major studios." And though "it's been proved absolutely worthless, we took the money and ran." Their new motto: "cash at the bedside." Darwinism and Democracy
As his works accumulated, a persistent theme emerged -- born of a dilemma that the Darwinian apostate and Democratic disciple, naval officer and draft-despiser, would resolve in his own life: how freedom of will and libertarian self-reliance can coexist with devotion to authority and love of country. And it remained when he gave up stories for better paying novels, adult tales of time-travel and juvenile space adventures. "The difference is that I never put any real sex into the boys' stories -- not because the boys didn't understand or like it, but because their parents, teachers and librarians didn't approve. And the stories for boys were technically much more difficult, loaded with engineering and so forth, than anything I wrote for adults -- since most adults put their brains into cold storage at the age of 21 and never take 'em out again."
In terms of "real sex," the G.M. is considered something of a prude by contemporary standards. And he admits that "I won't use in my stories the seven words that are supposed to be taboo on radio" because "with the cultural background of this country, they look naked as a plucked chicken when you stick 'em in something that's supposed to be in somebody's living room. For a good long time those words need to be left out behind the barn."
And some reviewers find his sexual scenes unconvincing. He dismisses the subject with a flip of the hand. "Every younger generation that has ever come along thinks they invented sex."(Later he will recall New York in 1930: "I made good use of Greenwich Village. In those days, a girl would go to bed with you for a hot bath. And I had a bathtub!" Ginny discreetly but firmly shifts the subject.) And if his work of the '70s seems obsessed with sex, as some critics argue, it was a timely subject. Just as "Farnham's Freehold" (1964) dealt with racial questions current at the time, his 1973 novel "I Will Fear No Evil" plunged into the libidinal narcissism of the Me Decade: An aging tycoon transplants his brain into a sexually spunky young woman and finally manages -- thanks to his prior deposit in a sperm bank -- to impregnate himself!
Besides, "I started putting sex into science fiction a long time back. As fast as they would take it. I had to watch the weather. Back in the days when Ron Hubbard and I and L. Sprague de Camp were all writing for Astounding, Katy Tarrant -- who was [editor] John Campbell's assistant, she was a devout Catholic and an old maid. He let her do all the censoring, because he didn't know what would pass and what wouldn't. Sprague used to stick in dirty words and situations just to annoy her, and then she'd mark those out. But she told Campbell that she didn't have any trouble with Mr. de Camp's stories -- she could always tell. But when it came to Mr. Heinlein's stories, she just had a feeling that they were bad all through!"
In that chill climate, he decided to suppress the book that became "Stranger," first conceived in the late '40s. "I held that story back for over 10 years until I felt that the culture was ready to take it. That's the only story I've ever done that was plotted in full before it was written." How did he know the hour had come? "I just smelled the air." By 1961, it was already scented with revolution, and the G.M. became an unwilling youthquake guru.
Ironically, at the same time he was developing another reputation -- as a "fascist." His work had grown increasingly political, painting idealized societies or cautionary dystopias of anarchy and spiritual rot. Even Ginny became alarmed: "She used to tell me not to preach," says Heinlein, "and then she decided I'd better." Ginny sighs. "What can you expect of a man whose forebears were preachers?" (Or of one who has inherited the moral mantle of Wells?) Then in 1959 he published "Starship Troopers," a rousing paean to martial rites of passage that posited a society in which only veterans have the franchise. Its fervid battle scenes and apparent glorification of a military elite led critics to cry fascism.
Heinlein protested ("It's a democracy in which the poll tax is putting in a term of voluntary service -- which could be as a garbage collector"), but things got worse when the story spread that Scribner's, which had published a dozen of Heinlein's juvenile novels, rejected "Starship" on grounds of excessive militarism. Wrong, says the G.M. "Look, my editor (NEW-LINE)the late Alice Dalgleish and I were not on speaking terms for years. She disliked everything I did. She was an East Coast liberal pacifist, and increasingly she had become disturbed with what I was writing." But the books kept making money, so she acquiesced, Heinlein says, until " 'Starship Troopers' came along and she would have no part of it. She told me to put it on the shelf for a year and have another look at it myself. With that, I took it across the street" to another publisher.
Of course, the G.M. is a militarist -- unashamedly so. His conversation veers incessantly back to scenes from World War II and the Naval Academy, as if caught in the orbit of a fading star. Dominating his shipshape study -- above the file cabinets with drawers marked "Classified Subjects" -- is his Annapolis dress saber, surmounting a plaque bearing the inscription "Dum vivimus, vivamus" (While we are alive, let us live!). Over his writing desk is a sort of time-travel shrine to the past -- including a photo of Ginny in uniform and some stamped-metal plates. "See," he says, bending to touch them, "these are her dog tags."
And many of his opinions may seem like Cold War relics in the present age. As for the Soviets, "I can't understand those who think there's any good in signing treaties with people who have cheated for 40 years." And he believes the Communist Party probably has infiltrated, or at least influenced, campuses, churches and environmental groups; assumes that there are Russian "sleeper" agents soon to awaken; and regards incidents like Three Mile Island as suspicious "pseudo-emergencies." The growing frequency of such "public panics" may serve to keep Americans distraught and confused: "It is possible that the disinformation boys are doing their jobs." And Ginny, a talk-radio fan, says she has "recognized certain terms that are either clearly communist" or the product of callers who are "very well indoctrinated."
That is not a currently modish position. But neither is the G.M.'s recent standing with reviewers. No matter: "Most critics simply cannot cope with science fiction because their background is usually a degree in English or something like that. You take a man who has to take his shoes off to do arithmetic, and he's not going to be too happy with ballistics and spaceships."
Besides, "as for my recent books, although many of them have been panned, each is more widely reviewed than the one before -- and selling more copies and making more money." This despite the view, summarized in the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, that his works since 1970 are "bloated tracts." It is true that his latest work has been preoccupied with alternative universes that each mind creates for itself: multiperson solipsism.
If some critics find that a tedious whimsy, to the G.M. it may be profoundly apt. "As far as that solipsistic stuff is concerned, this country has zigzagged back and forth between a religious teleology and a mechanistic teleology, and there ain't any evidence worth a hoot for either of them. There isn't for solipsism either," but the G.M has been serious about it ever since his 1941 story, "They," in which a solitary asylum inmate perceives that the material world exists only to deceive him and that he is the author of his own cosmos in dreams. Heinlein shakes his head at the memory. "John Campbell called it 'a perfect case of paranoia.' The guy just never got it through his head that the story was intended to be taken straight."
Others have damned him for creating societies in which only elites are rewarded ("Whereas now," he grunts, "elites are supposed to apologize for the privilege of rewarding the common man?") and for inventing female characters fated only for appalling subservience and motherhood. Says the accused chauvinist: "Even that can't be substantiated statistically. I don't know what they want me to do with the females. Do they want 'em not to have babies? I don't think there's much future in a gal who's thoroughly opposed to having babies. And the men in my stories are also thoroughly in favor of it."
Yet others complain that Heinlein needs more editorial pruning than he gets. Which is zero, the G.M. avers. "I won't sign a contract until the manuscript is complete. And the contract has in it that there isn't anything they can do even if the comma's in the middle of a word." Will and the World
It also includes a mighty hefty advance. "If you've got a publisher on the hook for a great big piece of change, he'll spend some money on promoting it." But for all his mercenary disclaimers, few writers are more earnest about the effect of their work. When "Expanded Universe" came out in 1980, "I wouldn't allow a foreign edition. I'm highly critical of some things about the U.S. in there, and dirty linens should be washed at home."
And he's been scrubbing away for years, in fictional fables and polemics so gloomy they make Oswald Spengler look like David Hartman. On public school: "We are now in the second generation of illiteracy. The blind lead the blind." On the average ill-motivated college student: "Most U.S. campuses will baby-sit him four years, then hand him a baccalaureate for not burning down the library." On soldiering: "Roman matrons used to tell their sons, 'Return with your shield or on it.' After a while this custom declined. So did Rome."
Inanity abounding: "You can go to a cocktail party on the campus of a major university and be asked three times what sign were you born under. And we've got citizens in this culture who honest to God believe that professional athletes and actors are important people with opinions worth paying attention to!" Ginny interrupts: "And rock musicians -- you left them out." Heinlein groans. "I find an oxymoron in the very term 'rock musician.' "
But mostly he abhors the atrophy of the will. Hence his novelistic concentration on voluntarism -- and his real-life crusade for blood donations through the Robert Heinlein Blood Drives, a national program that began at sf conventions. "SF fans, just taken raw, have a much higher percentage of donors than the normal population," he says. And "the Trekkies are twice as easy to recruit. That's the influence of Gene Roddenberry and the fact that 'Star Trek' has a definite moral tinge."
Unlike the lumpen entropy he discerns in society as a whole. A small, dismissive sigh. "Oh, well, if the country can't make it on the volunteer efforts of its citizens, let it go down the drain. It's not worth saving if the citizens don't want to save it." The Grand Master braces the cane, forces himself off the sofa, then stops, stuck on the thought. His head drops toward the floor and his voice goes gray.
"I'm not convinced that we're going to make it. I'll bet on the human race. I'm just not sure about the United States of America."