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Centenary a modern sci-fi giant


 Robert Heinlein (above), at his home at Bonny Doon (Santa Cruz), Calif., in 1966, wrote science fiction for all ages. While his novels such as 'Stranger in a Strange Land' included sophisticated social and political themes, one of his children's books inspired the early TV show 'Tom Corbett, Space Cadet' (left).
VIRGINIA HEINLEIN/COURTESY OF THE
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Date published: 6/30/2007

PRINCE WILLIAM County--When Robert A. Heinlein opened his Colorado Springs newspaper on April 5, 1958, he read a full-page ad demanding that the Eisenhower administration stop testing nuclear weapons. The science-fiction author was flabbergasted.

He called for the formation of the Patrick Henry League and spent the next several weeks writing and publishing his own polemic that lambasted "Communist-line goals concealed in idealistic-sounding nonsense" and urged Americans not to become "soft-headed."

Then Heinlein made an important professional decision. He quit writing the manuscript he had been working on--eventually it would become one of his best-known books, "Stranger in a Strange Land"--and started work on a new novel.

"Starship Troopers" was published the next year, and quickly became perhaps the most controversial sci-fi tale of all time. Critics labeled Heinlein everything from a Nazi to a racist. "The 'Patrick Henry' ad shocked 'em," he wrote many years later. "'Starship Troopers' outraged 'em."

Almost half a century later, the book continues to outrage, shock--and awe. It still has critics, but also armies of admirers. As a coming-of-age story about duty, citizenship, and the role of the military in a free society, "Starship Troopers" certainly speaks to modern concerns. The U.S. armed services frequently put it on recommended-reading lists.

There's even a grassroots campaign to have a next-generation, Zumwalt-class destroyer named the USS Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein's influence reaches far beyond a single book, of course. He was the first sci-fi author to make the bestseller lists, the winner of multiple awards, and the inspiration for a legion of proteges and imitators whose own volumes now weigh down bookstore shelves. He was not the most accomplished literary stylist in his genre, but he spun a good yarn, grappled with big questions, and left an enduring imprint on a popular field. He was arguably the preeminent sci-fi author of the 20th century.

The Heinlein difference

One of the key differences between him and the two men who might also compete for this title--Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke--is that whereas they were political liberals, Heinlein was a Man of the Right.


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