William Patterson Jr. finished and delivered the second volume of his copious biography of Robert A. Heinlein not long before he passed away of a heart attack. He was too young. After reading his opus, he may well have had another book about Heinlein in him which we will now not see.
I base that on the fact that while volume 2—The Man Who Learned Better: 1948 to 1988—is filled with the minutiae of a crowded life, there seems little in-depth analysis and assessment of Heinlein’s work. Given the few and scattered remarks about the shortcomings of other books of criticism published during Heinlein’s lifetime, one might reasonably expect such an assessment from a writer of evident skill and insight. It is not out of the realm of probability that he may have intended such analyses for a third volume devoted exclusively to such an assessment.
To be sure, there are brief passages about several of the books of a critical nature that are useful. (Detailing the travails of writing a given work, while fascinating to anyone interested in Heinlein’s life, is no substitute for a thorough study of the work in question. This is not intended as a criticism of what is in the book, only that the wealth of information spurs a desire for more, especially when presented with tantalizing explanations of some problematic works that alter past perceptions.) For instance, in discussing one of Heinlein’s most poorly understood later period novels, I Will Fear No Evil, Patterson reveals that Heinlein’s ambition in writing it was as response to postmodernism, taking apparently as inspiration John Barth’s Giles, Goat Boy and work by Philip Roth. If true—and I have no reason to doubt him, as Heinlein himself discussed this in his own correspondence—this casts a very different light on what has become the Heinlein novel even ardent fans seem to dislike, often hate.
Although Heinlein rarely discussed his process with the story that became I Will Fear No Evil, …[i]t was as if he was working on crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as story—the kind of thing for fiction that Frank Lloyd Wright had done with the Bauhaus when he designed Fallingwater in 1935…
He had Nabokov on his mind as well as the New Wave movement (this would have been right in the middle of it) and postmodernism, as well as reacting against the enshrinement going on in fandom of Campbellian Golden Age conventions. He wanted to shake everyone up.
If in fact that was the nature of the work, it becomes clear why the book seemed to have no “natural” audience and served to confuse people more than reinforce Heinlein’s reputation as the “dean of space age fiction.” The core readership of science fiction—fandom—would have loathed the postmodernist ambiguities while mainstream critics still treated science fiction as a fad and a not very good one at that. Had someone told the New York Times reviewers that the book was a postmodern allegory, they would have (perhaps silently) laughed in dismay.
At this point a deeper analysis of the book might have been in order.
But Patterson was not doing literary analysis, he was chronicling a fascinating life.
Heinlein has long been the largest head on the Mount Rushmore of science fiction. The myths about him, from his first sale to his unhindered success to his idolization of redheads to his supposed fascism, have stood in for any real knowledge about him, seasoned here and there with personal anecdotes. In fact, Heinlein was almost pathologically private and resented anyone poking into his personal life. He had a public persona, which he apparently enjoyed using, based on certain aspects of his character which those who saw only that took to be the whole man. In later years his critics viewed him as hopelessly anachronistic, conservative to the point of feudalistic, a reactionary, and, despite sales figures, marginal to the field. The service Patterson has done, besides the obvious demythologizing (especially in the first volume), is the extensive contextualizing of the man, the filling in of event, and the examination of how surfaces hide as much as reflect what lies behind what the public sees.
Heinlein was nothing if not experimental. Often, because he was conducting his experiments at the times he did, the experiments were misperceived and misunderstood. One can sympathize with his repeated desire not to have his work “analyzed” in an academic sense because he felt it would rob readers of seeing for themselves. He likely disliked the idea of seeing his own motives and character analyzed through the lens of his work, something which happens often, especially in academic works. He did not wish to be “psychologized” by people who may well not “get” what he was trying to do in the first place.
He was very much about control in this regard.
As in much of the rest of his life. His detractors occasionally riff on the idea that he was in some ways a fraud, that his desire for control was only to mask a deep sense of incompetence or even incomprehension. This is an unfortunately shallow reading. Consider: Heinlein’s one ambition as a youth was to have a Navy career. He worked himself into physical breakdown to get through Annapolis only to find out a short time into what he thought would be a lifetime calling that his own health was sabotaging him. He had to leave the Navy because his body failed him. The one thing he truly wanted to do was denied him.
Some people might give up and sell siding for the rest of their lives. Heinlein tried many things. He ran for political office, he tried mining, pursued his education, finally coming to writing. Even after early success at that, he continued trying to serve his country and ran a research lab.
That he may have felt some ambivalence about the thing that eventually became his most successful endeavor might be understood given all this. Rather than hiding incompetence, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he lived with continued fear that some new malady or accident might put an end to this as well. It is not inconceivable that he expected, however minutely, that the bottom would fall out in the next step or two. Reading about the speed with which he turned out clearly superior novels, it is not hard to imagine a nagging imp of doubt that he might not be able to do this next week for reasons completely out of his control
Misrepresentation and fraud have nothing to do with this.
What is most interesting in all this is seeing the bell curve of influence with each new book. Heinlein’s work was audacious when written, groundbreaking when published, influential throughout the period when other writers reacted to it, and then reassigned as exemplary of some shortcoming on the author’s part as the culture caught up with it and passed it by. In hindsight, the flaws are myriad, some profound, but I can think of no other science fiction writer to suffer such extremes of regard, especially within their lifetime.
What becomes apparent in reading the 1000 plus pages of Patterson’s work is that the one thing Heinlein intended with each book was to start a discussion. What so many seem to have taken as pronouncements from on high, Heinlein intended as the opening gambit in a long conversation. Instead of engaging in the argument, too many people made him their personal guru, something he consistently rejected, and when they realized finally that some of the things Heinlein said were problematic or downright inflammatory, they turned on him. He wanted to be Socrates, not Aristotle as remade by the Church. He wanted people to disagree, to engage.
How else to explain the wild variations of philosophy between works like Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Beyond This Horizon and Farnham’s Freehold, Methusaleh’s Children and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?
On the other hand, he seemed often to work in a vacuum of his own making. He bridled at the confines of expected SF forms, yet he did not avail himself of relationships with the mainstream literary establishment he longed to be part of. He wanted to write work that transcended genre boundaries—and read extensively outside the field—and yet he rarely seemed to engage in the cultural discourse going on outside the SF “ghetto.” He and Virginia, his third wife, were usually politically isolated, even while trying to fully interact with the ongoing political dynamic. Heinlein’s politics were more of the “curse on both your houses” variety than anything categorizably useful. He claimed affinity with libertarianism, yet had no real respect for much that passed for political philosophy under that banner. Neither fish nor fowl, it came to others to try to define him, and he gave them little assistance. The country moved in directions with which he disagreed, but his reactions gave no support to others who thought the same way and wanted to do this or that to change it. He lived by a definition of liberal that was being quickly left behind by those working under that label. His consistent message through his fiction was “Think for yourself” and yet it came across more and more as “if you don’t think like me you’re an idiot.” Those looking for ready-made answers in his work could only see the latter.
Narratively, volume 2 is packed too tightly to be as good a read as the first book. No doubt this is a result of trying to keep it usefully in hand in combination with the increased wealth of information available about this forty year period. But it nevertheless offers a fascinating look at a genuine iconoclast within his context, and for that it is a very worthy book.
Finally, as much as detractors would like to make Heinlein an irrelevancy, the very obsessiveness with which many of them attend his deconstruction suggests that while one may disagree over him profoundly, he is not easily ignored or dismissed. Whatever else, he did succeed in getting a conversation going. Sometimes it’s actually about what he considered important.