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