Robert Heinlein today and reaching for the world

On this day in 1988, Robert Heinlein died. I was ten; I hadn’t yet read any of his books or realized that the label “science fiction” was going to sort out a lot of the books I wanted to read. I’ve run into blog posts lately either claiming that Heinlein couldn’t win a Hugo today (apparently because of the bad bad liberal politics of the field?) or refuting that claim pretty effectively (either on the grounds of non-uniformity of politics of the field or on the idea that Heinlein would not have stood still as a writer or both).

But I was thinking about Heinlein’s life influences, and look. If Heinlein was of an age to still be reasonably alive and writing today–say, if he was my age, even–he would have gone to an integrated Annapolis. His Navy would have been racially integrated, and it would have been gender integrated, not as an event, but for his entire life. As something he would have taken for granted. And for all the back and forth about how enlightened he was for his time, or was not, depending on which side you take, it changes a person to have their formative educational/professional experience segregated that way. He managed to fight against those assumptions some, as good people of his generation did. But the formative experience was like that.

I just keep thinking about this stuff as a young friend of mine approaches her physics undergrad degree, nearly twenty years after I started mine. At the good liberal arts colleges around here, the places where she applied, physics majors are pretty routinely a third women now. A third! Can you imagine? I can’t. I honestly can’t. I get a lump in my throat thinking about all the other varied young people she’ll have around her while she learns. Why, it’ll be like…it’ll be like….

Shit, it’ll be like being a science fiction writer.

That’s amazing.

I look back at my early writing, when I was coming out of that life, and how natural Smurfette casting still felt. I look at how often I wrote just one significant female character not just in short stories with small casts but in longer works–not all the time, but often. Because that was my life. Not all the time. But often. And I was the girl. Smurfette was me. Princess Leia was me. Think how much easier it would have been not to bounce back from it, not to reach for the women influences from the rest of my life, the entire tapestry of influences from the rest of my life, if I had been in that environment as a guy. If I’d lived that life and come out of that life and when there was only one girl in my class it was someone outside my own skin. And then think if there were no girls at all, inside my own skin or not. I think people often misread this as “I want to have a message to have X women in things as a quota,” when in fact I mean: it was really broken to have things draw from that lopsided a pool, and the rest of life is not that broken, and I don’t want my stories to feel that broken. I want to be able to reach for the world and have the whole world there to reach for. And when you’ve been in that segregated an environment, you’re reaching for the world with only one arm, and that arm’s got a pulled muscle in the shoulder and a broken wrist.

The Naval Academy is still 4:1, male:female. But when there was no ratio, it had to have affected him. Had to. The idea that “if Robert Heinlein was writing today” would result in anything even remotely like what we saw–I mean, even aside from the Great Depression, World War II, the existence of SF as a maturing field, anything like that. Just thinking about where and how he did his education. Guys, you can’t change just one thing. You can’t pick people up and put them down in history. “If your grandfather was alive to see this,” we say, and with our grandfathers, with the artists who are the ages of our grandfathers or our great-grandfathers, we have the delusion that we could just keep them going as they were, without having them change with the triumphs and the setbacks and all the things that happen in a life, because their lives were somewhat close to ours. We don’t bother to say, “If Rembrandt was alive today, could he win a Chesley Award?”, because we’re more aware of the remove. But the remove is still there. It doesn’t make excuses. It does make changes. It does make differences.

It’s up to us to make them good ones. It’s up to us to build on those differences. My God, a third of her classmates women! I think that’s an expanded universe we can all believe in, regardless of what we think of Robert Heinlein’s Hugo chances.

8 thoughts on “Robert Heinlein today and reaching for the world

  1. Yep, that. They’re called “formative years” for a reason; not that nobody can ever go beyond anything they learned then, but because they learn *everything they know* at 30 in the first 30 years of their lives.

    I say fairly often that nobody will ever be as important in SF again as Heinlein, and John W. Campbell, and certainly some other people (but I think those two are the most clear-cut cases) were. The field is so much older and bigger, it’s simply not possible for any one person to be so dominant.

    Actually, if Heinlein were your age now, he wouldn’t be a writer, he’d be a serving Naval officer. Because it was tuberculosis that invalided him out, and he very probably wouldn’t have that now. (Except that changing his earlier life too might direct him away from the Naval Academy.)

    • A serving Naval officer, or dead in the Persian Gulf somewhere, or wouldn’t have gone to the Naval Academy at all because going to the Naval Academy when you were born in 1978 is very different than when you were born in 1907, or…yeah. Can’t change one thing, but TB is one thing we’re actually much better at changing now.

  2. Robert A. Heinlein was my introduction to sci-fi; I read my dad’s copy of The Puppet Masters when I was 10 and even though it made very little sense to me at the time, I was hooked. After that, I read nearly every Heinlein book that I could get my hands on, and I still enjoy reading his work as an adult. While I do see many problems within novels like Friday and Starship Troopers (and they are chockablock with issues, as I’m sure you know), I still do enjoy quite a lot about them. It can be difficult to remember that Heinlein’s life was very different from our own might be today, and it’s refreshing to read essays to that effect rather than the “Heinlein was a horrible man and no one should read his books ever” that seems to be so common today.

    • I think one of the reasons you see the “ugh Heinlein” essays is not just because of the problems you’ve mentioned (although they’re certainly there) but also because there is a faction of fandom that is convinced that Heinlein was not only hugely influential but in fact the pinnacle of what *can ever* be achieved in adult or YA SF. It’s a lot easier to think, “oh, Zelazny, one of the greats of the field, some serious issues” and get a balance on the ups and downs of his work, because the number of “Zelazny can do no wrong” superfans is much smaller and much less politically cohesive. So you’re seeing a lot of pushback on Heinlein because there’s still a lot of push in the first place.

      Heinlein *himself* was not politically cohesive–even among his explicit nonfiction writings, never mind the things he had reasonably sympathetic characters believe, you can find change of position and contradiction of previous positions over his life. As happens to most of us! But there is a modern group that would, I think, even agree with that statement as long as I was careful to phrase it as “the great man was willing to grow with new data” rather than “hoo, there’s some crazy in there”–but then they still use “Heinlein fan” as a political dog-whistle.

      I feel like the best way to push back when someone is saying, “X book is the greatest, everybody should read X book,” is to talk about other books that are also great, and why. I mean, yes, sometimes there’s a point in saying, “Your great book sags in the middle and spends 80 pages going nowhere,” or, “Your great book portrays one or, hey, for bonus points, multiple sexes of humanity in weird and truncated ways,” or whatever other points of criticism come up for a particular “great book” someone wants to talk about. But I think that getting people excited about *something else* is a better memetic prophylactic against the idea that One Author is the One True.

      I think that David, above, is right that the field will never be so small and new again that one editor or one writer can be so dominant, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s the best thing for it. Joe Haldeman tells a story about being worried about running into Heinlein after _Forever War_ came out, but Heinlein liked it, congratulated him on it. And I think that while we can’t guarantee that our elders would like everything we do–we can pretty much guarantee that they wouldn’t!–almost any artist worth their salt would be devastated if they heard, after their death, “Well, you were pretty much as good as it got. Nobody really ran with it, after you. You thought of all the directions this could go, and nobody went anywhere radically different from you.”

  3. I’m constantly amazed at reading about the (usually) deaths of people that have lived to advanced ages. Thinking back over the changes to their lives in the past 80, 90, 100, 100+ years! How many people survived the Holocaust and lived to see men land on the moon? How many of us will live to see people land on Mars?

    When I read material from writers in those past ages (I’m on a R. E. Howard kick lately), I cringe at the assumptions inherent in the material. The sexism and racism stand out, especially if the author tries to subvert it. By giving a story a character that breaks the norm, it tells us what the norm is for the author.

    What matters to me is the story. That an author looked at their life and had something to say. What they say can not escape the context of their life. By approaching it from a different context, I may end up with a different story to tell.

    • I like that. They have their context, and sometimes they take it and make a good story, and I come to it from my context, and sometimes that winds up with a different story. I like that a lot.

      I particularly like it because we end up with more stories that way.

  4. I really wish more people bothered to think about societal context as influencing who a person is. Having studied history, it drives me especially crazy. It’s like there’s this idea that a person has to exist as good or bad, without having to work towards either. Although I suppose not everyone wants to think about the flip side of the coin–questioning who we would have been, if our context had been different. Instead of imagining ourselves as inherently good.

    • And thinking it can only go one way! Rather than, “If I’d been born in 1907, I might have ended up a fascist, if I’d been born in 1907, I might have ended up a communist, if I’d been born in 1907, my ideas about race might well have been different in a number of ways….”

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