Despite an already long and cumbersome title, William H. Patterson, Jr., could have included still an additonal subtitle to the second volume of his mammoth, authorized biography of Robert A. Heinlein, something along the lines of “The Most Influential American Science Fiction Writer of the 20th Century.” Even Philip K. Dick — the current darling of hipsters and academics — regarded Heinlein as the master.
Robert Anson Heinlein (1907-1988) possessed an astonishing gift for fast-paced narrative, an exceptionally engaging voice and a willingness to boldly go where no writer had gone before. In “— All You Zombies—” a transgendered time traveler impregnates his younger self and thus becomes his own father and mother. The protagonist of “Tunnel in the Sky” is black, and the action contains hints of interracial sex, not the usual thing in a 1955 young adult book. While “Starship Troopers” (1959) championed the military virtues of service and sacrifice, “Stranger in a Strange Land” (1961) became a bible for the flower generation, blurring sex and religion and launching the vogue word “grok.”
Heinlein’s finest work in the short story was produced in the late 1930s and early ’40s, mainly for the legendary editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell. But by 1948, when this volume opens, “The Roads Must Roll,” “By His Bootstraps, “Gulf” and “Requiem” are behind him. The onetime pulp writer has broken into the Saturday Evening Post and Boy’s Life, married his third (and last) wife, Virginia, and settled in Colorado Springs, where he designs and builds a state-of-the-art automated house. Apart from his occasional involvement with Hollywood, as in scripting “Destination Moon,” he will devote the rest of his career mainly to novels.
Many readers would argue that Heinlein’s fiction for adolescents, books like “Between Planets” (1951), “The Rolling Stones” (1952), “The Star Beast” (1954) and “Time for the Stars” (1956) are his finest overall achievement. They certainly provided an introduction to science fiction for teenagers of several generations. By the mid-1950s Heinlein had, in fact, reached his peak as an artist, producing one tightly written, crisply plotted novel after another. Over the course of roughly a year (1955-56) he wrote his best juvenile, “Citizen of the Galaxy” (it opens when a beggar buys the orphan boy Thorby at a slave auction); “Double Star,” which builds on “The Prisoner of Zenda” theme; and, not least, my own youthful favorite, “The Door Into Summer.” That title alone must be one of the most beautiful in literature.
Patterson tells us that Virginia Heinlein coined the phrase. One winter the Heinleins’ cat, wanting to go out, scampered from one door to another, but when each was opened Pixie shied away from the cold and snow. Finally, Ginny remarked, “I guess he’s looking for the door into summer.” As Patterson tells it, the nostalgia-laden phrase immediately sparked the plot of Heinlein’s new book.
Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.
Though Heinlein can do no wrong in his biographer’s eyes, if you use yours to look in Patterson’s voluminous endnotes, you will occasionally find confirmation that the writer could be casually cruel as well as admirably generous, at once true to his beliefs and unpleasantly narrow-minded and inflexible about them. Today we would call Heinlein’s convictions libertarian, his personal philosophy grounded in absolute freedom, individual responsibility and an almost religiously inflected patriotism. Heinlein could thus be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.
Throughout his life he regularly exhibited an almost feudal sense of gratitude and loyalty: Because transfusions saved his life during a difficult surgery, he actively lent his name and time to local and national blood banks. The day that Americans landed on the moon, he declared proudly, should be the first day of a new calendar; it was to him the greatest achievement in the history of humankind. When biographer Thomas Buell wrote for information about Adm. Ernest J. King, under whom Heinlein had once served, the novelist replied that he considered King a nearly perfect military officer and then produced 59 typed pages of anecdote and reminiscence.
Throughout, Patterson shows the interconnections between Heinlein’s life experiences and his various stories, talks, essays and novels. Amazingly, the man could write all but the longest novel in just a few weeks. “The Door into Summer” took 13 days. But when not at his typewriter, Heinlein would usually be setting out on cruises to exotic parts of the world (including Antarctica), quarreling with workmen, renters and would-be biographers, or rushing to the doctor either for his own illnesses or Ginny’s. Patterson quotes liberally from Heinlein’s lively, scurrilous and often very funny letters to his agent, Lurton Blassingame, and these are almost the best part of the book.
Heinlein’s last novels — “I Will Fear No Evil,” (1970) “Time Enough for Love” (1973), “The Number of the Beast” (1980) and others are generally regarded as bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull. (This, I hasten to add, is hearsay: I haven’t read them.) As early as “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Heinlein had begun to use his fiction as a pulpit, while also resisting any serious editing and allowing his elderly sexual fantasies to run wild. Except by the hardcore Heinlein fan, the works after “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (1966) go largely unread.
But, then, one might ask, do 21st-century science fiction fans still read any Heinlein? At recent sf cons, he has been dismissed as racist, misogynistic, jingoistic and irrelevant. The topmost blurb on Patterson’s back cover is, tellingly, by macho novelist Tom Clancy. Not a good sign. Yet just below, Samuel R. Delany — gay, African American and nothing if not transgressive — emphasizes Heinlein’s ability to free young minds from orthodoxy. Still, the best appreciation of Heinlein as an artist—and that’s really all that matters-- may well be Joe Haldeman’s introduction to the 1978 Gregg Press edition of “Double Star.” At its end, he notes that he has read the novel 10 or 12 times — and, I suspect, that number has grown since then. Yet Haldeman is no adoring acolyte: He wrote “The Forever War” in part as a riposte to the gung-ho excesses of “Starship Troopers.” Both books received Hugo Awards.
William H. Patterson Jr. died suddenly just as this second volume of “Robert A. Heinlein” was being published. For all the weaknesses and sometimes tedious minutiae of his monumental biography, it remains an important contribution to the history of American science fiction.
Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post each Thursday.