100 sf

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Sex, Violence, and Politics: A Sketchy Profile of Robert Anson Heinlein

A more thorough investigation of Robert A. Heinlein than what follows can be found elsewhere, even Wikipedia. I’d suggest, for instance, the chapter “How SF Defused the Bomb” in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of by Thomas Disch (available for purchase at my place of work, Subterranean Books), the entry on Heinlein in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (ridiculously out of print), and Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction by Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin (unnecessarily out of print, but a limited number of copies are available from Franklin direct). Nonetheless, I’d like to say a couple of things about the old boy. First, he was born and raised in Missouri, and that should be a source of pride for us Missourians. Heinlein defined American science fiction in the 50s and 60s. Say what you want about Asimov, but there was not a more influential sf writer in America during that period. Partly that had to do with Heinlein’s unique ability to square pulpy, fast-paced dialogue and narration with hard science. The sensitive man with a slide ruler who can kick some butt while dressed in patriotism is a character no one but Heinlein would have thought to write. And his characters are a reflection of his seemingly contradictory political views. On the one hand, Heinlein was a strong supporter of the military. He himself spent time in the navy before being discharged due to pulmonary tuberculosis. On the other hand, a novel like Stranger in a Strange Land (also available at Subby) was a literary gateway to the counterculture of the late 60s--a rather anti-military movement. (Though he claimed otherwise later in life, Heinlein was also, for a time, a member of Upton Sinclair's Socialist EPIC movement.) Mostly this was because of the recurring theme of sexual liberation in Heinlein’s work: nudism, sex changes, and cross-generational dating. Rarely does a character make it through to the end of one of his novels without taking his or her clothes off and bedding a fellow Heinleinian construct. Heinlein himself was married three times, though he remained with his third wife, Virginia, until his death forty years after they first married. He’s often lauded as a Libertarian hero, but perhaps he’d be better described as a right-wing anarchist. He certainly wouldn’t have been mates with the Neo-Cons of today’s politics. I find his writing damned infuriating and outrageous, but way too entertaining to put down. What can I say? He's a Grand Master.


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