*So, yes, this is a SORTA blast from the past post — but it’s one that wasn’t published here, but at The Lensman’s Children as a guest post in October 2010. I apologize for doing a repeat post of sorts, but Through Fire has FINALLY started coming together and I’m up to my eyeballs in it. And then again, I started feeling I needed to do a post on what Heinlein meant to me, because some people are talking a lot of insanity about the poor man, who is not alive to defend himself. But there’s really nothing I want to say about Heinlein which I didn’t say in this essay. And so here it is. A reprint and not a reprint, and some of you might have missed it, so…
UPDATE: since this was written in those days of halcyon sanity four years ago, I feel compelled to clarify — because I don’t want to be answering stupid comments all day, I want to be finishing my book — that no, I’m not threatening to kill anyone. The end of this essay is simply my expression of belief that those who are so afraid of Heinlein that they must make it a thought crime for people to read him, don’t stand a chance now that the gatekeepers can’t keep out those of us who learn and read from everyone and everything. Because, you see, we do. Yes. Everyone. Yes. Everything. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but ideas are just grist for the mill.*
I’ll start this blog by coming clean and admitting I swiped the title from a speech given in Johannesburg by my friend Dave Freer. I swiped the intention of the title, too. Dave used it to mean that the pseudo-literary aspirations of science fiction had killed what was different and interesting about the genre. He meant that classical science fiction had “fathered” him and that he meant to carry on its legacy, regardless.
My reference is more specific. Years after Robert A. Heinlein had died, my husband and I managed to – yes, it did take some work – have the child we’d been trying to conceive for six years. He was – still is! – a boy, so we named him what we had always planned to name him: Robert Anson Hoyt. Because he’d been due on the fourth of July (I spent months singing Yankee Doodle Dandy to my belly!) when – incidentally — labor started, we didn’t realize the significance of his birth date on the seventh. Not until my husband called my brother and told him the name of his brand new nephew. My brother said, “Oh. And on Heinlein’s birthday.”
The coincidence was too much for my husband who forced me (trust me, it took forcing) to send a birth announcement to Mrs. Heinlein. This initiated a correspondence between us which — eventually – extended to my having her AIM handle. This handle was Astyanax. In one of the last conversations we had I asked her about its significance.
I was, of course, aware that Astyanax was the offspring of Hector and Andromache and supposedly thrown from the walls of Troy after the sacking of the city. But in some versions of the story Astyanax lived on to found settlements in Corsica and Sardinia.
Ginny – I could never call her that while she was alive, though she asked me to. Respect forced me to call her Mrs. Heinlein – told me that was exactly what she meant. Just like the Greeks thought that they’d successfully put Hector down and that no one would survive to avenge him, so the establishment thought it had successfully put Heinlein down and no one would survive to avenge him.
On the face of it, this seemed absurd. After all Heinlein died in his eighties, after a successful career. He was not murdered. His city was not sacked. Even for a metaphorical city, where it referred to Science Fiction, you could attribute falling readership to myriad conditions, including changes in US retail.
However, I knew exactly what she meant. You see, I’d come at Heinlein from an odd direction. In fact, it was many years before I realized that the first book of his I read must have been when I was nine or so. Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. At the time I didn’t realize it was science fiction. I had no concept of Science Fiction. To me my Science Fiction reading started with – of all things – Out of Their Minds, by Clifford Simak. In fact, when I first read Heinlein after realizing what science fiction was, something about the way his characters acted and talked, scared me a little.
I was more comfortable in Clifford Simak’s quieter universe, with its more docile heros. Except some books of Heinlein’s would demand to be read again and again – Puppet Masters; The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress; Starship Troopers. Little by little, Heinlein grew on me. The first time I encountered the notion that taxes were a form of extortion was in his books. First argument against gun control, too, in Red Planet. First argument for individual freedom – The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. First statement that the future is always better than the past – The Door Into Summer. Growing up in a country that had been a monarchy for most of its existence, a country where in fact, the citizens were held to owe something to the country, not the other way around, this seemed like insanity. But it stayed with me. And it took root.
By the time I was in my early twenties, I knew that Heinlein was not only my favorite author, but – hands down – the greatest influence in forming my mind and spirit. (This, by the way reading mostly his adult books, as only about half of his juveniles were ever translated to Portuguese and available at the time I was buying.)
I was very shocked when I came to the US and found that it was not fashionable, and – in some quarters – not acceptable to be a Heinlein fan. Considering his beliefs, and his work, ranged from hard left to pragmatic right, not just because he was not captive of a view point, but because his beliefs changed through his life, Heinlein is, like the bible, something in which everyone can find something to criticize. There were, for instance, the people who objected to what seems to be the militarism of Starship Troopers. (Never understood that one. Starship Troopers is if you’re hit, hit back and you have a right to survive but that’s me.) There are people who object (oh, of course. Even Heinlein saw that more than the rest, I think, because he expected it) to the sex which ran the gamut of everything people might consider offensive. There are people who object to his views on religion. There are people who object to his female characters wearing high heels. I’m sure I’m leaving a lot out.
(Though I never heard anyone object to Puppet Masters, which is odd, since the story questions our perceptions; our ability to know we’re our own people; media behavior and, incidentally, the limits of Constitutional liberties. No, I don’t object to the book. You see, like Heinlein I believe scary subjects are the ones that should be explored. In an entertaining manner. To make money and make people think, too.)
However, over time, criticism in the field I aspired to enter coalesced around objections coming mostly from the left. This happens possibly because with obvious and clear exceptions the writers and critics in the field, range from left-of-center to left-of-Stalin. (This is not a criticism, merely an observation.) So we hear that Heinlein was unfair to women, too militaristic, too pro-business, too pro-space-colonization and of course, that one thing he could never escape forever (given that if he’d lived he’d now be 102) a dead white male. And yes, we DO hear that he has too much sex, from people who clearly haven’t read their field for a while. Needless to say those who think the proper place of genre literature is competing for space in college reading lists find him “too simplistic” and not nearly “nuanced” enough.
By far though, the shrillest criticism I’ve heard of Heinlein – perhaps because being female I move in female circles socially and sometimes professionally – comes from college-educated women. A female friend told me she’d gotten furious when reading Friday’s rape in the beginning of Friday and had never read him again. The idea baffled me, since lots of authors write about rapes – lots of romance authors, who are mostly female. Mystery, too – and it doesn’t mean they enjoy them or approve of them. It was clear from the raid after Friday’s liberation that the rapists were killed and their organization destroyed. (Yes, one survives, but he was constrained to rape her, which changes things. And at any rate, he undergoes his own trials by fire. And he was like Friday an artifact, so not a free man.) There was punishment for the act, so why the outrage?
And then I started hearing it from everywhere. Heinlein was anti-woman, they said. This despite the fact that he always maintained in his books that women were superior to men in most ways, and my having first encountered the concept of “date rape” in his books. Heinlein didn’t even write real women, only men with tits. This last baffled me even more since, on a smaller scale – I was never built on the heroic scale. Emotionally and mentally, at least. The hips are getting downright monumental, these days – I’d always identified with his women. And I knew lots of women like them. Ironically some were women who didn’t like him because – they said – he wrote men with tits. At the same time, while being accused of being too masculine, his women were attacked for liking men, for enjoying sex and wanting to be pregnant and for not having ever been told that “all penetration is violation.” (Like a lot of Heinlein criticism, the contradictions can make your eyes cross and your head spin around three times.)
Sometimes the very fact that his women were larger than life was brought up as evidence that he hated women. A puzzling idea, since his men were also larger than life. It’s what made his books so appealing. Very few people – outside college reading lists – want to read about average Joe getting up and struggling with the heart break of Psoriasis.
Sometimes the fact that his women liked men and were willing to dress and behave to please men was brought up against him. Children, if you don’t know what’s wrong with that reasoning, I can’t help you. (Though I might find you some diagrams and a couple of very good manuals.) Women will always dress and behave to please men (even when that includes pretending they won’t) and men will always dress and behave to please women.
Yeah, there are the exceptions, but then they’re really only playing on the opposing team and the same rules apply. Heinlein himself said that everything from poetry to nuclear physics were only variations on the old game. Humans – mirabile dictu – are driven to mate and will go out of their way to make themselves attractive. (Shame on Mr. Heinlein for making his women human, instead of poreless rubber dolls with agendas.)
I soon realized none of these people – mostly women, though also a few men – had ever actually read Heinlein. Certainly no more than a few pages. They had heard how terrible he was and made up their minds about him before they read the first sentence. But they knew just knew all that they’d been told was true. And possibly more.
Which is how we came to the sad state of affairs where pros in panels can dismiss Heinlein by saying that like any old man he was obsessed with sex and politics.
The true reason for all this – though I won’t say it was coordinated. Most of it can be attributed to stupidity, a wish to belong and fear rather than malice – is that Heinlein scares the living daylights of those who would restrict the operation of human reason. And so he should.
Yes, his politics varied over his lifetime. He tackled themes that no sane human being would tackle, for fear of retribution. Themes in which powerful elites have a lot invested. Power. Sex. Money. Religion. The definition of human. Obliquely and sideways, race. The changes technology can bring to all of those.
Now, some of the themes were less than elegantly handled. Sex for instance. But when you’re examining the effects of extreme longevity on the incest taboo, it is quite possible there is no delicate way to tackle it.
However, more important than his themes or his political inclinations, or his preoccupation of the moment was his determination that the human mind should be free free to examine and discover. Free to know. Free to find the truth. Which is why I perceived him – first in rejection, and later in embrace – as the quintessential American writer. His values were – always – of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness. The primacy of the individual over the state or the church or the coercive group. It could be argued that having been educated in Heinlein I had to become an American citizen. In fact, had become one, in all but name and law long before I landed on these shores.
As he said it, himself When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, “This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,” the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, – not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.
He never anticipated or perhaps he did (he did after all mention the crazy years) – an ideology (political correctness) that would make it impossible for anyone to talk about anyone else’s problems, particularly for a man to write about the problems of women without oppressing them by his very act of “usurping” their “victimhood.” An ideology – or perhaps merely a belief – that would make it impossible to disagree with the verdict of the cognoscenti once they’d declared any person’s ideas forbidden, any person’s reasoning offensive.
Mighty little force is needed to control a man – or a woman, or a child – whose mind has been hoodwinked.
They’ve managed to lock Heinlein’s ideas, his thoughts, his persuasive, infectious insistence on individual will and free reasoning, behind walls where most people won’t dare trespass. They have killed him as dead as they can, because – to quote Shakespeare, possibly talking about Marlowe – When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a/man’s good wit seconded with the forward child/Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a/great reckoning in a little room.
They think they are safe. The man’s words are dead. His wit is not available to the new generations. Even his gallant wife is gone.
But, alas, they counted without Astyanax. We are legion. And as long as there is a library standing, as long as the net remains reasonably free and gives us access to his works and those of other believers in freedom, more of us will appear.
I am not going to pretend I am equal in greatness to Heinlein. Would that I were. It was in full humility and sense of my own ineptitude that I dedicated my book Darkship Thieves to him. I hope there is in it at least a spark of his genius, but I know there’s probably no more than that.
But I was raised by Heinlein through his books, and I hope at least the spirit and the intention of the search for truth and individual freedom remains in my work. As well as the certainty that it’s always easier to be a live lion than a live lamb or a dead lion.
I am sure many stand ready to kill me – or at least my career – I’m sure I’ll be held to have despicable personal habits and low mental prowess. Heaven knows, I quite often feel tired and dispirited, as though I’m bleeding from multiple wounds.
But the need to awaken people drags me up again. I start writing to remind others of their innate freedom to think beyond the boundaries imposed by any ideology, any government, any church, any in-group, any literary current. The belief animates me that, so long as we keep fighting for Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and using our minds to improve the present, the future will always be better than the past.
And then, like Inigo Montoya, the mad Spaniard in The Princess Bride, I rise again and resume my search for those that killed my father: that intransigent refusal to think; that serf-like willingness to believe the wisdom of the self proclaimed “betters”; that boneless, spineless conformity that goes along to get along.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.