Sci­ence-fic­tion au­thor’s hefty bio skirts mean­ing be­hind his sto­ries

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Joel Boyce

IN the clos­ing months of 2013, a quar­ter­century and some months af­ter his pass­ing, Robert A. Hein­lein’s of­fi­cial bi­og­ra­pher, Wil­liam H. Pat­ter­son, Jr., put a note on his blog that the page proofs had been sent to the type­set­ter. The sec­ond half of the long-awaited Hein­lein bi­og­ra­phy — al­to­gether 10 years in the mak­ing and some 1,200 pages long, with at least as many pages left on the cut­ting-room floor — would be pub­lished in 2014. To even ca­sual read­ers of sci­ence fic­tion, Robert A. Hein­lein needs no in­tro­duc­tion, but he made waves out­side the genre as well. His three most fa­mous and con­tro­ver­sial books man­aged to scan­dal­ize or of­fend an amaz­ing num­ber of other­wise non-over­lap­ping de­mo­graph­ics. Star­ship Troop­ers marked him as a mil­i­tarist, though Pat­ter­son calls this a mis­read­ing. It’s true, af­ter all, that Hein­lein was firmly against the draft, though he was hardly a paci­fist. Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), about a hu­man male raised by Mar­tians re­turn­ing to Earth and un­in­ten­tion­ally start­ing a re­li­gion, ended up, sur­pris­ingly enough, be­com­ing the ba­sis for its own quasi-re­li­gious move­ment. An­tic­i­pat­ing free love and hip­pie spir­i­tu­al­ity by a few years, it be­came a bi­ble for many flower chil­dren through the tur­bu­lent lat­ter years of that decade and be­yond. The Moon Is a Harsh Mis­tress, pub­lished just a cou­ple of years later, has in turn been held up as a lib­er­tar­ian al­le­gory in the tra­di­tion of Ayn Rand’s The Foun­tain­head (it’s not — al­le­gory, that is — Mis­tress is very po­lit­i­cal, but not at the ex­pense of nar­ra­tive or char­ac­ter). Hein­lein’s per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal views were clearly com­plex. As thought-pro­vok­ing as his writ­ing is, it’s these ap­par­ent para­doxes in his think­ing that make the man be­hind the books so in­trigu­ing. Pat­ter­son’s first vol­ume (2011) cov­ered Hein­lein’s first 40 years, re­veal­ing a sur­pris­ingly full and var­ied life as naval of­fi­cer, Sec­ond World War en­gi­neer and even politi­cian, be­fore he turned se­ri­ously to writ­ing. But the next 40 years are what fans re­ally wanted to know about. The ma­jor Hein­lein nov­els. The con­tro­versy. It would be only a small ex­ag­ger­a­tion to de­scribe Pat­ter­son’s ef­forts to un­ravel these threads as his own life’s work (he passed away be­fore the bi­og­ra­phy’s re­lease). He came to this task not as a pro­fes­sional bi­og­ra­pher in the vein of James Gle­ick or Wal­ter Isaac­son, but as a very ded­i­cated fan. But his re­search is thor­ough, and if there’s a bias here (of course it’s fairly pro-Hein­lein), at least Pat­ter­son wasn’t in­clined to pro­tect the se­crets of the man he was meant to be re­veal­ing (as oc­curred with Hein­lein’s own abortive post­hu­mous mem­oirs, san­i­tized by his wife be­fore pub­li­ca­tion).

It’s ac­tu­ally sur­pris­ing how lit­tle is said about the mean­ing or in­ten­tions of the sto­ries Hein­lein wrote, al­though plenty is said about the aftermath, the del­uge of letters, the ten­dency for fans to make the man, un­will­ing, into a guru. Hein­lein him­self had, even in his vo­lu­mi­nous cor­re­spon­dence, not so ter­ri­bly much more to say about most of his work, it seems, or at least not much that Pat­ter­son thought worth reporting. Per­haps ev­ery­thing there ever was to know about Hein­lein was in his pub­lished works all along, in the sto­ries he chose to tell, and the re­main­der is sim­ply a man liv­ing a life like the rest of us, with in­ter­ests and joys and love out­side the printed page. And the para­dox of his work? Ap­par­ently no para­dox at all. Just a guy who knew what he be­lieved and didn’t worry about fit­ting into any one po­lit­i­cal box.

Joel Boyce is a Win­nipeg writer and teacher.

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