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Centenary a modern sci-fi giant

June 30, 2007 12:35 am


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). edmila30.jpg.jpg


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.

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Mo., on July 7, 1907. (His centenary is a week from today.) Growing up, he became an avid reader of a wide range of authors, from Mark Twain to Jack London. As biographer Bill Patterson has pointed out, sci-fi pioneer H. G. Wells made a big impression--and not just because he wrote about Martian tripods in "The War of the Worlds." Young Heinlein picked up Wells' twin devotion to science and socialism.

The boy followed his brother to the Naval Academy and graduated high in his class in 1929. Five years later he left the Navy with a medical disability. He settled in Los Angeles and threw himself into left-wing politics, joining the campaign to elect the muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair to California's governorship in 1934. This effort failed, but Heinlein remained a leader among local Democrats. He ran for the state assembly from Hollywood in 1938 and lost the primary.

Shortly after his political defeat, he tried his hand at professional writing. A first novel, "For Us, the Living," was not published until a posthumous edition came out in 2003, but he kept at it. Following World War II, his career blasted off.

For a while, Heinlein concentrated on short stories for the pulps and short novels for teenage boys. As with all great science fiction, his work constantly speculated about technology, social progress, good government, and so on. By the early 1950s, married for a third and final time, he was drifting away from his left-wing past and adopting a new brand of politics.

Slugs vs. iowa

In "The Puppet Masters," a 1951 novel meant for an adult audience, slug-like alien parasites land in Iowa and take over the minds of Americans. It falls upon a secret agency within the U.S. government to fight back, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. "The Puppet Masters" may be read as a classic "Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers" story--and also as an anti-Communist metaphor during the era of Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and Joe McCarthy.

The 1950s were probably Heinlein's most prolific period, and the decade culminated with the publication of "Starship Troopers." The story focuses on Juan Rico as he graduates from high school, joins the Space Marines, and wages interplanetary war on a belligerent race of "bugs" whose ant-like collectivism makes them natural-born Communists. Most of the story focuses on Rico's boot camp--"Starship Troopers" is dedicated "to all sargeants [sic] anywhere who have labored to make men out of boys."

One of the main non-ideological complaints about "Starship Troopers" involves the plotting--too much talk and not enough shoot-'em-up scenes against those extraterrestrial creepy-crawlies. Yet the richness of the novel lies in these more thought-provoking sections, where Heinlein inserts miniature monologues that sound like outtakes from Zell Miller's GOP convention address.

Give violence a chance

"My mother says that violence never settles anything," comments one character. A teacher who doubles as Heinlein's mouthpiece then pounces: "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedoms."

Heinlein goes on to describe a society in which citizens gain the right to vote through military service. His conjectures about "the decadence and collapse" of 20th-century democracies are also designed to raise liberal hackles: "Those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears."

Heinlein certainly wasn't a conservative traditionalist. His most popular book, in terms of copies sold, was "Stranger in a Strange Land"--a paean to sexual liberation and an attack on organized religion. Published in 1961, it resonated with hippies. Yet the author remained aloof from the counterculture: In 1964, he and his wife Virginia were enthusiastically for Barry Goldwater. A few years later, according to "Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion," he signed a magazine ad that supported U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

In his recent book "Radicals for Capitalism," Brian Doherty observes that "a youthful love for Heinlein's tales of rugged individualists often lies in the past of dedicated libertarian activists"--a statement that's possible in large measure because of the 1966 novel that many regard as Heinlein's greatest: "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress."

The story takes place mostly within a lunar colony, where the residents grow restless under a command-and-control economy imposed by the Lunar Authority, a government that operates for the benefit of Earthlings.

"Here in Luna we're rich. Three million hardworking, smart, skilled people, enough water, plenty of everything, endless power, endless cubic," says one of the moon-dwelling Loonies. "What we don't have is a free market. We must get rid of the Authority!" A few pages later: "It strikes me as the most basic human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace."

loonies for freedom

The Loonies rebel in ways that echo the American Revolution, such as declaring independence on July 4, 2076. There are battles, diplomatic missions, debates on hydroponic food exports--plus lots of discussion about how societies ought to organize themselves.

Although idealistic, "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress" steers clear of libertarian fantasyland. Heinlein is well aware that revolutions don't lead to utopia, and the successful lunar revolt is no different. By the novel's end, the moon's new government has rejected the innovations Heinlein apparently believes it should have embraced.

"Seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn't forbidden," complains the narrator, who considers lighting out for the asteroids. There's certainly no point in fighting human nature: "I long ago quit being disappointed in men for what they are not and never can be," says another character.

Heinlein was an early backer of the Strategic Defense Initiative and, according to his friend and fellow sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, he helped develop some of the language Ronald Reagan used in his speech introducing the concept.

At the time, Reagan's domestic foes derided SDI as pure science fiction. To drive home the point, they even dubbed it "Star Wars." If Heinlein had lived to his 100th birthday--and witnessed recent advances in missile-defense technology--he might have smiled at their fulminations, and maybe even written a book about the subject.

John J. Miller is a national political reporter for National Review magazine, in the current issue of which a longer version of this commentary appears. © 2007 by National Review Inc., 215 Lexington Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016. Reprinted by permission.

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