It’s now been two years since I was on the Tor “seminar” for the launching of Learning Curve, the first installment of Heinlein’s bio – and I’ve almost (but not quite) stopped steaming.
What affronted me at the time was my colleagues who would come in and say “Was Heinlein sexist or homophobic? Absolutely” – and did this freely admitting they’d never read Heinlein, they just knew he had no queer characters (Brother, the scene between Galahad and Isthar would shock them) and no strong women who weren’t “men with breasts” (this is the no true Scotsman fallacy. What is a man with breasts? Any woman who is capable and self sufficient? I think the people complaining should ask themselves if their characters aren’t female dogs with no brain.) Alternately, or often at the same time, Heinlein gets accused of writing only submissive women, because in the intervals between shooting the bad guys, working astrogation problems and solving/causing world crisis, his characters want to have babies and – shocker, I know – fall in love with men. As proof of their submission the fact that they wear high heels and – horrors – aprons is brought up. (It’s a good idea to wear aprons while shooting bad guys. Blood is a pain to get off good clothes.)
The truth is that Heinlein gets crucified for two reasons only:
- He propagated the idea that There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch and the philosophy is embedded in his books.
- None of the people who rage and rag on him and call him names have a tenth of the talent he had in his little toe. And none of them has now, nor will ever have the same influence on the culture.
The first one is of course the most important point. No, wait. It’s not the most important point, no. But it is the point that serves to hang up all their discontents. They read Heinlein’s characters who do-for-themselves (male, female and juvenile) and they get upset. I belong to the same vague socio economic group as these people, and let’s face it, we all grew up with nonsense like “follow your dreams” and “to dine own self be true.” And we’ve interpreted it – having largely lived soft and sheltered lives – to mean that we should in fact do this, regardless of the economic consequences of it.
I’m a little different because I was fortunate, very early on (“Never ruin your children by making their lives too soft” RAH) because I experienced true poverty – due to political-social circumstances – I not only know what it’s like to go to bed without having “eaten all you want to?” – which is the question used to establish “hunger in America” – but I often went to bed without having eaten much substantial. (It’s okay. I had a lovely figure.) Because come evening, the cupboard was bare.
I attended a magnet school in the rich area of town and had to go between the ages of 12 to 14 without a single new piece of clothing, except what we got from red cross.
Now, am I claiming I suffered horribly? H*ll, no. I’m not even claiming I suffered. My mom and dad grew up eating a lot of vegetable soup when all else was absent, and mom went barefoot summer and winter, and gleaned for coal by the side of the railroad for cooking. She grew up with four siblings and a cousin all in a three bedroom house where the kitchen had a dirt floor and the only bathroom was an outhouse at the end of the garden.
Compared to her, I was a pampered princess who whined when we couldn’t afford hot water in winter.
However it brought me up close to the idea that when there isn’t enough, you can’t have it. You can say all you want to that you have these rights and these needs, but when something isn’t there, you can’t have it. (It also brought me up to the idea that a government powerful enough to give you what you want can also take it away from you, but that’s something else. And it gave me a profound distrust of authority and the certainty I don’t want anyone to have TOO much over me and mine.)
And that’s what sets my colleagues off. Look, to establish a writing career these days, you’re going to be unproductive for a good long time.
Or at least, you’re going to make very little money.
Those of us who are disposed to feel we have to pay our way through life (and many of us are) are at the very least going to feel guilty. Some, like me – and a lot of my friends – will justify our compulsion by doing things like running the house on one person’s salary, at the same level as friends making double the money (which I did for years. It’s called cooking from scratch, mending, refinishing AND doing without – we drove an $1100 suburban with a missing front bumper for ten years.)
My husband convinced me that it was worth it doing this, that it was a risky investment but an investment which would eventually pay off by supporting us in our old age. I thought he was nuts. Now indie is a possibility, I wish I would have listened to him more. I’d have a lot more things ready to go up.
But a lot of people have to rely on parents, siblings, even friends in those early years. For a lot of them it paid off. (And a lot end up just doing this the rest of their lives.) The guilt they felt about this makes them very upset at hearing TANSTAAFL. They feel it as an accusation and therefore they lash out at the man they think is accusing them.
Am I holding Heinlein up as a paragon? Kids, no one in early SF was a paragon. Oh, okay, maybe one or two, but I’ve heard stories of con parties. I also get told – regularly – how boring and stodgy we are now, with our spouses and our kids and our middle-class lives.
That’s fine. Heinlein was married three times and he was a man of his generation. He had ideas of his generation.
However, considering most of those ideas are now being implemented in our schools, our mass media and our “public counseling” that can’t be why they turn against him. (And let me tell you, compared to what is being written today in contemporary romance, Heinlein wrote books suitable for nuns. WELL BEHAVED nuns.) And the way he wrote sex working in the future was possibly – maybe – something that MIGHT make sense for a society where you live practically forever and where sex and reproduction are almost entirely divorced.
If writers of science fiction are meant to be saints, I must give it up now. To quote from Pride and Prejudice “my temper I can’t vouch for.” (Though my good opinion once gone isn’t gone forever. In fact, I like many people whose politics I abhor. I’m just likely to tell them to their faces that they’re Marxist [or statist] poopy heads, and when they take offense at that it loses me friends or allies. It’s a character defect and one I’d like to overcome. But I’m not willing to go back to hiding my deepest feelings, either.)
But of course, the people – mostly writers – accusing Robert A. Heinlein (who was known for his epic rows with everyone from Communists to Libertarians, so I might get that from him, if one assumes – like Pratchett does – that there are genetics that have nothing to do with the physical) are also not people who live immaculate lives, they’re not people of even and sweet tempers, and the work they do is not in fact perfectly balanced and giving every side and point of view (partly because a book that did that would be soup.)
No, what irks them most about Heinlein is that he had influence they couldn’t have – that he molded minds of people who started out in a culture so different his characters opposition to taxation or their insistence on owning guns made them as alien as another species. But little by little, his stories showed me the logic of his arguments. (No other writer has done that to me.)
People crucifying Heinlein are not even those standing on the shoulders of giants. They’re non-house-broken puppies, peeing on the shoulders of giants.
In a related note, I confess I never read Ayn Rand. (I watched the Atlas Shrugged movies and, yes, I was the one person in the world who loved the first. No. One of two people. My younger son did too.) I have this thing with the way words are put together. Perhaps because I see the non-colloquial way the words fall. I also can’t read Nabokov.
I do realize a lot of her ideas are “extreme” in the sense that “people don’t work that way.” But I have several friends who worship her because of what she said about the trends of society, and for being the one voice in fiction (until Heinlein, I guess) pointing out that no, you don’t have the right to anyone else’s sweat. To live off the work of others is NOT a moral stand. It might be a need. I lived off my husband’s salary for a long time, but I tried to give something back. I have friends who are unemployed and who are trying like h_ll to give back. But that is different from assuming you are entitled. (No one does that? Then why was one of the excuses to pay the health care bill, that it would free you to pursue your artistic ambitions, instead of having to get a nine to five job?)
My friends seem to discount the more extreme bits of the philosophy the same way I discounted the free love poliamoury in Heinlein. (One of the saddest things at a con was the woman in the audience who said “I read Heinlein when I was a virgin and I tried to follow his ideas, and it messed up my life.” I wanted to say “oh, you sad little puppy. If you’d read Harry Potter, would you have jumped out the window on a broom?” I too read Heinlein when I was a virgin, but being a virgin – that I know – is not supposed to make you lack all common sense and ability to observe your surroundings. Maybe I was an unusual virgin. And no, I didn’t say it. If I’d told her that, she MIGHT have jumped out the window on a broom.)
Anyway, my friend Amanda Green takes up the issue of “why hate Rand?”:
Let me ask you this: if Rand’s world is so unrealistic and its heros so “evil” (read politically incorrect) what about Herbert’s Dune? Oh, I hear the complaints now. That wasn’t a book that pushed philosphy. Bull shit. It just pushed a different sort of ideology. Go back and read it without your poltically correct glasses on. There are any number of other books out there that hit the readers over the head with the author’s philosphy. But those books are all right because they push the “right sort of thinking”.
As a writer who is neither a saint nor a model of much of anything, and who wrote, in A Few Good Men a book that will probably get her crucified not just by both sides of politics, but possibly by sides that will come into existence for the purpose of hating me, I can only say that I hope twenty years after my death there will be panels at cons where the subtext is “Hoyt, immoral pervert or political menace?”
I’ll be in good company.