Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1 (1907-1948): Learning Curve.
By William H. Patterson, Jr.
Published by Tor US, August 2010
Review by Mark Yon
Robert Anson Heinlein is generally regarded as one of the best known and most important science fiction writers of the 20th century. When ‘the Big Three’ are mentioned, it’s usually Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke who are the authors who brought SF up to date in the golden years of the 1940’s to 1970’s.
Since their deaths, whilst Asimov and Clarke’s lives have been written of in some detail, Heinlein’s personal life has been very secret. In his lifetime, questions about Robert’s life, rather than his writing, were usually either totally ignored, or angrily denied by the author. Alexei Panshin’s Dimensions of Heinlein has a background tale about this as vibrant as some of Heinlein’s fiction.
So what to make of this authorized first volume of a biography of Robert Heinlein?
Well, the author of the biography himself is a recognised ‘independent scholar’. William J. Patterson’s knowledge of Heinlein’s work is quite well-known. He founded the Heinlein Journal in 1997 and co-founded the Heinlein Society with Virginia Heinlein in 1998.
So the credentials seem to be there. It must also be noted that this hefty book has not been rushed in its production, with considerable time to research and write it. Patterson’s website says, ‘On January 1, 2000, Mrs. Heinlein phoned Bill and asked him to undertake the formal biography of her husband, which he commenced researching in February 2000. The research phase occupied the years 2000 through about 2003, and he commenced writing in the latter part of 2002. Mrs. Heinlein saw and approved the first 120,000 words of the biography (including the Heinlein family history which has been moved to an Appendix in the published first volume of the biography).
Following Mrs. Heinlein’s death in January 2003, he was asked by the newly-formed Heinlein Prize Trust, to consult with the Robert A. Heinlein Archive of Special Collections and Archives of the University of California, Santa Cruz’s McHenry Library in integrating the material coming to the collection from Mrs. Heinlein’s working files. As there was very nearly as much “new” material as already existed in the Archive, he had to make extensive re-organization of the files, preparing them for public accessibility. The research phase re-commenced for the next two years, as the writing simultaneously progressed. Each volume of the biography was drafted at approximately 375,000 words, and then cut to approximately 300,000 for submission in 2006.’
So; at least three years of research, with at least four years of writing. Access to the Heinlein Archives. Direct contact with the last Mrs Heinlein whilst writing, presumably to check and confirm details. What could go wrong?
Let’s start with the positives. The first volume is lengthy, detailed and readable. It deals with Bobby Heinlein’s early life, his childhood, education and career in the Navy and the beginning of his writing career. It ends just after his fortieth birthday, with his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld.
From this, many things can be learned. Bobby was a child of many, who was always in his older brother’s shadow even at the Naval Academy of Annapolis. His family lived in seemingly continuous poverty, Bobby having to work from an early age to provide money for school equipment, books and clothes. This continued even to Naval Academy, where he struggled constantly to stay financially solvent. His time in Naval training was generally enjoyed, though not entirely outstanding and not without some issues. Robert learned pretty quickly that there were times when he should keep his mouth shut, but didn’t.
He took up fencing and enjoyed it, though he excelled at the academic side of the Academy more that the physical training.
A bout of tuberculosis soon turned Bob’s naval career around and meant that early retirement ensued. This must have been a hammer-blow to the young Heinlein who, based on what is said in this book, loved the naval life and was clearly aiming for greater things.
He then turned to politics and helped in the campaign of Upton Sinclair’s socialist EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement in the early 1930s. Horrified by the dirty tricks campaign of his opposition, Heinlein himself ran for the California State Assembly in 1938, but he was unsuccessful. He then turned away from politics and focused on writing SF, mainly under the guidance of John Campbell, legendary editor of Astounding/Analog. His first story, Life Line, was published in 1939 in Astounding.
The beginning of the Second World War for the US in 1942 meant that Heinlein tried repeatedly to re-enlist for active service, though this was (just as repeatedly) denied. Consequently he spent the war working for the U.S. Navy in aeronautical engineering, working at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Pennsylvania, recruiting Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp in the process.
After the war, Heinlein returned to writing. Sales to The Saturday Evening Post meant that Heinlein, unlike many of his contemporaries, broke into ‘the big time’. Reaching readers that didn’t read SF in the pulps, he was one of the first SF writers to be published in hardback, something almost unknown up to this point. This book ends as his science-fiction career was starting to (erm) rocket.
So: what does the reader gain from reading this biography? I guess the main interest is that there is lots of information here that you won’t get anywhere else, based on access to the Heinlein Archives that is not available to other biographers.
The $6 000 000 question though is whether we need to know as much information as is given here. Frankly, no. I suspect that this book, as readable as it is, will cater for an audience that already has an interest, and probably (like me) for the SF aspects. As you might gather, this doesn’t happen until after the midway point of this large volume. Consequently some readers may be disappointed, or get bored with the lengthy details of Heinlein’s childhood and naval training.
However the detailing of Robert’s early life does have a purpose, as there are clues here that Heinlein’s background and experiences are reflected in what and how he wrote later in life. His hard upbringing may have led to his somewhat hard-nosed approach to business. Heinlein’s first forty years seem generally to have been a succession of difficult times: from his difficult childhood to the time as his SF career begins (motivated by a need to make money) and takes off, Heinlein goes a number of trials, leading through to two divorces and a third marriage as the book ends. Each time Heinlein’s life reverts to new beginnings and it is clear that life is often hard.
For those with an interest in his connections with other SF writers this only really appears at about halfway through the book. There are some interesting insights about other SF writers along the way: Asimov was like an over-eager puppy, L. Ron Hubbard was a charismatic person who seems to have fallen out with Heinlein partly due to Hubbard’s complicated dalliances with women. Forrest Ackerman was an annoyance. In particular, Heinlein’s relationship with John Campbell is very interesting. The letters here show that they were friends, and close friends, at this time of Heinlein’s life. However this clearly did not continue throughout their lifetimes. (Bearing in mind this relationship I have always been surprised at how little was said about Campbell by Heinlein on Campbell’s death in 1971.) The business arrangements of Street and Smith, publishers of Astounding/Analog, clearly affected their relationship and this no doubt will be expounded on in the second volume.
This leads us to another aspect covered here. Heinlein’s romantic involvements were many and varied. He led a life that involved affairs, open marriages, nudism and nude photography. What is most surprising here is how much detail of Heinlein’s marriages before his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld is covered. Virginia and Heinlein’s second wife, Leslyn, became friends before Virginia and Robert started their personal relationship.
There are some negatives. There are some astonishingly glib leaps of faith made in the narrative. Patterson, in the first page of his Introduction, nearly jumped the shark for me by claiming that the death of Robert A. Heinlein was an event of 9/11 or the death of Kennedy proportions. Whilst I accept that it was a major upset (it was for me!), I really doubt that it was of that scale, as much as I would’ve liked it to be. (So too Asimov and Clarke, for that matter.) Added to the facts that Heinlein was 80 and also that his health had been poor (if not to mention critical) for a good few years prior to that, it was sad but not really a shock.
Being an authorised biography can give a reader the impression that we may not be seeing the whole picture of this complicated person. Patterson does tend to give a positive spin on it, though I was surprised, and pleased, that not all was as positive as it could have been, had this been an attempt to canonise the man, which was my first impression.
There are others through the book. Jo Walton at Tor.com has also said that some of the details may not necessarily pass muster.
There is also the issue of where to draw the fine line. Do we need to know the details of Heinlein’s love life, his sexual habits and his letters to his lovers? There are quotes and inferences made about those, including some quite ghastly intimate extracts from letters written by Heinlein when his second marriage broke up and he was living in secret with Ginny. Whilst the point can be made that these help the reader outline what was going on with Heinlein whilst he was writing some of his classic work, I also felt a little voyeuristic in reading what were quite intimate comments clearly not meant for public reading.
For all its faults, what this book does do is give the reader an idea of the complicated character that was Robert Anson Heinlein. Annoyingly self-opinionated, extremely political, personally and romantically intricate, it does at least give some ideas of where Bobby/Bob/Robert developed his views on social community, politics and lifestyle that appeared through his fiction.
If you want to get an idea of what a complex, infuriating and opinionated person Heinlein was, you’re not going to get a more complete picture than this. Whilst it is perhaps limited by being an authorised biography, I was surprised by some of the details given here, particularly when such details have never been made available before.
For anyone interested in the creation of a genre, this is fascinating and perhaps revelatory stuff. For me that was the interest. Heinlein’s background in the military and in engineering as well as politics clearly were reflected in some of his writing. So too some of his moral views, from his means of aggressive management to his sexual habits and open marriages.
I now reread my Heinlein with a greater understanding of the man who wrote this material and now see more clearly how his personal views affected his work. Whilst I still may not agree with some of his views personally, I now at least understand the context and the reasons for his views. And though I have reservations, surely that is all a biography can ask for.
Mark Yon, January 2011