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Heinlein, Robert A.

Robert A. Heinlein

American science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) was among the critical figures of the science fiction genre, advancing it beyond adventure stories in extraterrestrial settings. In Heinlein's hands, science fiction became a vehicle for exploring serious philosophical and social themes.

Heinlein had a strongly libertarian streak that led him into seemingly contradictory outlooks in his fiction. The militaristic themes of one of his most popular novels, 1959's Starship Troopers, led some critics to classify him as an adherent of extreme right-wing views. Yet in the 1960s Heinlein, thanks to the exploration of unconventional sexuality in his Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and other books, was lionized by members of the leftist student counterculture in the United States. Heinlein himself, however, saw no contradiction. In a letter to writer Alfred Bester, quoted by Brian Doherty in Reason, he wrote that both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land dealt with the idea that “a man, to be truly human, must be unhesitatingly willing at all times to lay down his life for his fellow man. Both [novels] are based on the twin concepts of love and duty—and how they are related to the survival of our race.”

Drawn to Astronomy

Robert Anson Heinlein was born in Butler, Missouri, on July 7, 1907, while his family was living in the home of his mother's father, Alva Lyle, a physician whose strong moral example influenced Heinlein greatly as a young man. The family soon moved to Kansas City, Missouri. The spectacular appearance of Halley's Comet in 1910 had a major impact on Heinlein, stimulating an interest in astronomy that lasted all through his childhood and youth. He hoped for a time to become an astronomer, and he was a voracious consumer of astronomy books at the Kansas City Public Library.

Although Heinlein did not turn to writing himself until he was in his early 30s, he had already become interested in science fiction as a student at Kansas City's Central High School. He read both new works and classics of the genre such as those by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, “whose influence on his work,” noted the Times of London, “is clear.”

After briefly attending the University of Missouri, Heinlein entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1925. After graduating four years later he was commissioned as an ensign and shipped out on the U.S.S. Lexington battleship. In 1933, however, while serving on the U.S.S. Roper, he contracted tuberculosis and was discharged as medically unfit for service, having reached the rank of lieutenant.

Heinlein cast about for a new career in the 1930s, trying out several different ventures in an effort to support himself and his wife Leslyn, whom he had married in 1932. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles briefly; owned and operated the Shively & Sophie Lodes silver mine in Silver Plume, Colorado, in 1934 and 1935; sold real estate; and, in 1938, ran for the California State Assembly from the district that included his home in Southern California's Laurel Canyon. Heinlein's venture into politics went nowhere, and his financial situation worsened.

In late 1938 Heinlein spotted a notice in the magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, urging unknown authors to submit stories and offering a $50 prize (which was actually just the publication's normal pay rate). Within four days he had written “Life-Line,” a story about a machine that can predict when a person will die. Pleased with the story, Heinlein sent it not to Thrilling Wonder Stories but to the more prestigious Astounding Science Fiction. The story was accepted, and Heinlein, earning $70 on its publication, applied himself industriously to his writing. He published so many stories over the next three years that he had to use pseudonyms— editors tended to avoid publishing two stories by the same author in the same issue of a magazine, but by using names such as Anson McDonald, Lyle Monroe, Caleb Saunders, John Riverside and Simon York, Heinlein was able to increase his income. From the beginning, Heinlein's stories were more than adventures of dueling spaceships; many of them imagined aspects of a potential future human society. In fact, as a biography of Heinlein in the St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers contended, “One could argue that all of Heinlein, all of his themes and obsessions, are fully developed in these early stories and novella. The magic years, in fact, are 1939–42.”

Served as Engineer in Wartime

Heinlein took time off from writing during World War II, attempting to enlist in the military after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was rejected due to lung scarring, so he signed on as a civilian engineer at the Mustin Field Naval Experimental Air Station near Philadelphia. Heinlein convinced fellow science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to join him at the station, and the three worked on projects that turned out to have applicability to their fiction; Heinlein worked on high-altitude pilot suits (one of his most successful postwar novels was Have Space Suit— Will Travel), and near the war's end he wrote two letters unsuccessfully urging the U.S. Navy to become involved with space travel. The space program eventually fell under the administrative umbrella of the Air Force.

After the war Heinlein returned to writing full-time, quickly building on his former successes. In the heady atmosphere of the late 1940s, when the future seemed full of limitless possibilities but also dangers (Americans first began to come to grips with the threat of nuclear annihilation), his audience grew, and he succeeded in placing stories not only in science fiction periodicals but also in the Saturday Evening Post and other general-interest magazines. His marriage to his wife Leslyn dissolved, and he married biochemist and Navy officer Virginia “Ginny” Gerstenfeld. She became an important collaborator in Heinlein's career, often discussing potential story ideas with him.

Beginning with Rocket Ship Galileo in 1947, Heinlein also wrote stories for young readers. For the most part these differed from his books for adults only in their omission of sexual material, and several of them were later reissued in editions aimed at adult audiences. Heinlein helped foster the modern science fiction film industry, co-writing a screenplay for Rocket Ship Galileo; the film was released as Destination Moon in 1950. Heinlein's second young adult novel, Space Cadet, served as the basis for the television series Tom Corbett: Space Cadet, which ran from 1951 to 1956. Many of Heinlein's young adult novels, which included Farmer in the Sky (1950), The Rolling Stone (1952), and Starman Jones (1953), helped to stoke American excitement about the coming era of space exploration, which began with the launch of the Soviet Union's Sputnik orbiter in 1957.

The last of these young adult novels was Starship Troopers (1959), which told the story of an infantryman of the future who goes into battle against a race of giant alien bugs. The novel frankly expressed Heinlein's admiration for the armed forces as an institution; responding to charges that he had glorified the military, Heinlein (as quoted in the National Review) retorted, “I hope I accomplished [just] that …. The infantryman … needs some glorifying. That's the least I can do.” Starship Troopers embodied Heinlein's strong opposition to Communism—the alien insects, a regimented force lacking in individuality, symbolized the forces of the totalitarian Communist state—but perhaps its most controversial feature was Heinlein's depiction and seeming endorsement of a society in which only members of the armed forces and those involved in other forms of public service are allowed to vote. In 1997 Starship Troopers was made into a hit film by Dutch-American director Paul Verhoeven.

Wrote Novel of Free Love

Heinlein's next book, however, was anything but militaristic, and it was unlike anything that had been published in the science fiction field thus far. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) told the story of a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith who comes to Earth and establishes a religious movement called the Church of All Worlds, whose members live in communes and engage in a variety of nonmonogamous sexual practices, including group sex. Heinlein was writing well in advance of the full flowering of the 1960s student counterculture, but sales of the book shot upward in the mid-1960s as students began to question established lifestyles. The 1967 Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Triad” was a Heinlein tribute. To get Stranger in a Strange Land published Heinlein had to excise some of the sexual material and shorten the book considerably, but an unexpurgated version was issued in 1990. Both Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land won science fiction's Hugo awards; Heinlein had already won for Double Star in 1956 and would win again with The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1967.

Heinlein and his wife moved back to California in 1967, settling in the Santa Cruz area, and, as they had in Colorado, designing a unique new house of their own. Later they moved to Carmel. In 1969 Heinlein and his contemporary Arthur C. Clarke appeared as guests on CBS television news coverage of the Apollo spacecraft moon landing that year. By that time he was regarded, along with Clarke and Isaac Asimov, as one of the three greatest living science fiction writers, but he did not rest on his laurels; despite mounting health problems, he published several major novels in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of them, like mainstream fiction releases but unlike most science fiction, initially appeared in hardback editions.

I Will Fear No Evil (1970), another book in which Heinlein speculated on the possibilities opened up by unconventional social arrangements, dealt with a young woman who has received a brain transplant from a dying businessman and is then impregnated with his frozen sperm. He nearly died from a peritonitis infection just as the book was being published but recovered to write Time Enough for Love (1973) and The Number of the Beast (1980), both massive in scope. Heinlein's novel Friday (1982) was one of several Heinlein books with female protagonists, or important female characters, who went beyond the sidekick roles to which they were frequently assigned in early science fiction. Heinlein published three more novels in the 1980s: Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984), The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (1985), and his swan song, To Sail beyond the Sunset: The Life and Loves of Maureen Johnson, Being the Memoirs of a Somewhat Irregular Lady (1987). The recipient of numerous awards in his final years, including the first-ever Grand Master Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1975, Heinlein died in his sleep on May 8, 1988. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea with military honors. In 2003 a trust established in Heinlein's name inaugurated the Heinlein Prize, gives a periodic award of $500,000 for advances in the commercial uses of space flight. The Heinlein Archives, housed at the University of California at Santa Cruz, were posted online beginning in 2007 with an installment of 106,000 pages. As of that year, a two-volume biography of Heinlein by William H. Patterson Jr. was in preparation.

Books

Franklin, H. Bruce, Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction, Oxford, 1980.

St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, 4th ed., St. James Press, 1996.

Periodicals

Guardian (London, England), December 19, 1997.

National Review, June 10, 1988.

New York Times, March 10, 2004; October 2, 2005.

Reason, August-September 2007.

San Jose Mercury News, September 20, 2007.

Times (London, England), May 11, 1988.

Online

Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (December 23, 2007).

“Heinlein,” http://www.wegrokit.com/bio.htm (December 23, 2007).

“Robert A. Heinlein: A Biography by William H. Patterson Jr.,” Robert A. Heinlein Society, http://www.heinleinsociety.org/CentennialReader/robert.html (December 23, 2007).

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