Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein

Heinlein autographing at the 1976 Worldcon
Pseudonym(s): Anson McDonald, Lyle Monroe, John Riverside, Caleb Saunders, Simon York
Born: July 7, 1907
Butler, Missouri
Died: May 8, 1988
Carmel, California
Occupation(s): Novelist, short story author, essayist
Genre(s): Science fiction
Literary movement: Science Fiction
Debut work(s): Life-Line
Influenced: Allen Steele, Spider Robinson

Robert Anson Heinlein (July 7, 1907 – May 8, 1988) was one of the most popular, influential, and controversial authors of "hard" science fiction. He set a high standard for science and engineering plausibility that few have equaled, and helped to raise the genre's standards of literary quality. He was the first writer to break into mainstream general magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post in the late 1940s with unvarnished science fiction. He was among the first authors of bestselling novel-length science fiction in the modern mass-market era. For many years Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke were known as the "Big Three" of science fiction.[1]

The major themes of his work were social: radical individualism, libertarianism, religion, the relationship between physical and emotional love, and speculation about unorthodox family relationships. His iconoclastic approach to these themes led to wildly divergent perceptions of his works. For example, his 1959 novel Starship Troopers was widely viewed as glorifying militarism. By contrast, his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land put him in the unexpected role of pied piper to the sexual revolution and the counterculture.

Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for his novels. In addition, fifty years after publication, three of his works were awarded "Retro Hugos" — awards given retrospectively for years in which no Hugos had been awarded. He also won the first Grand Master Award given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for lifetime achievement.

In his fiction, Heinlein coined words that have become part of the English language, including "grok", "TANSTAAFL" and "waldo."




Heinlein from the 1929 US Naval Academy yearbook
Heinlein from the 1929 US Naval Academy yearbook

Heinlein (pronounced Hine-line) was born on July 7, 1907, to Rex Ivar and Bam Lyle Heinlein, in Butler, Missouri. His childhood was spent in Kansas City, Missouri.[2] The outlook and values of this time and place would influence his later works; however, he would break with many of its values and social mores, both in his writing and in his personal life. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1929, and served as an officer in the United States Navy. He married soon after graduation, but this marriage lasted only about a year.[3] He married his second wife, Leslyn Macdonald, in 1932. Leslyn was a political radical, and Isaac Asimov recalled Robert during those years as being, like her, "a flaming liberal."[4] Heinlein served aboard USS Roper in 1933–1934, reaching the rank of naval Lieutenant. In 1934, Heinlein was discharged from the Navy due to pulmonary tuberculosis. During his long hospitalization he developed the idea of the waterbed, and his detailed descriptions of it in three of his books later prevented others from patenting it. The military was the second great influence on Heinlein; throughout his life, he strongly believed in loyalty, leadership, and other ideals associated with the military.

After his discharge, Heinlein attended a few weeks of graduate classes in mathematics and physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, but quit either because of his health or from a desire to enter politics.[5] He supported himself at a series of jobs, including real estate and silver mining. Heinlein was active in Upton Sinclair's socialist EPIC (End Poverty In California) movement in early 1930s. When Sinclair gained the Democratic nomination for governor of California in 1934, Heinlein worked actively in the unsuccessful campaign. Heinlein himself ran for the California State Assembly in 1938, but was unsuccessful.[6] In later years, Heinlein kept his socialist past secret, writing about his political experiences coyly, and usually under the veil of fictionalization. In 1954, he wrote: "...many Americans ... were asserting loudly that McCarthy had created a 'reign of terror.' Are you terrified? I am not, and I have in my background much political activity well to the left of Senator McCarthy's position."[7]

Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944.
Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov, Philadelphia Navy Yard, 1944.

While not destitute after the campaign — he had a small disability pension from the Navy — Heinlein turned to writing in order to pay off his mortgage, and in 1939 his first published story, "Life-Line," was printed in Astounding magazine. He was quickly acknowledged as a leader of the new movement toward "social" science fiction. During World War II he did aeronautical engineering for the Navy, recruiting Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to work at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.

As the war wound down in 1945, Heinlein began re-evaluating his career. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with the outbreak of the Cold War, galvanized him to write nonfiction on political topics; in addition, he wanted to break into better-paying markets. He published four influential stories for The Saturday Evening Post, leading off, in February 1947, with "The Green Hills of Earth", which made him the first science fiction writer to break out of the "pulp ghetto". In 1950, Destination Moon — the documentary-like film for which he had written the story and scenario, co-written the script, and invented many of the effects — won an Academy Award for special effects. Most importantly, he embarked on a series of juvenile novels for Scribner's that was to last through the 1950s.

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in a 1952 Popular Mechanics article, titled "A House to Make Life Easy." The Heinleins, both engineers, designed the house themselves with many innovative features.
Robert and Virginia Heinlein in a 1952 Popular Mechanics article, titled "A House to Make Life Easy." The Heinleins, both engineers, designed the house themselves with many innovative features.

Heinlein divorced his second wife in 1947, and the following year married Virginia "Ginny" Gerstenfeld, whom he would remain married to until his death 40 years later. Ginny undoubtedly served as a model for many of his intelligent, fiercely independent female characters. In 1953–1954, the Heinleins took a trip around the world, which Heinlein described in Tramp Royale, and which also provided background material for science fiction novels, such as Podkayne of Mars, that were set aboard spaceships. Asimov believed that Heinlein made a drastic swing to the right politically at the same time he married Ginny. The couple formed the Patrick Henry League in 1958 and worked on the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, and Tramp Royale contains two lengthy apologias for the McCarthy hearings. However, this perception of a drastic shift may result from a tendency to make the mistake of trying to place libertarianism on the traditional right-left spectrum of American politics, as well as from Heinlein's iconoclasm and unwillingness to let himself be pigeonholed into any ideology (including libertarianism). The evidence of Ginny's influence is clearer in matters literary and scientific. She acted as the first reader of his manuscripts, and was reputed to be a better engineer than Heinlein himself.[8]

Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980.
Robert and Virginia Heinlein in Tahiti, 1980.

The Heinlein juveniles, novels for young adults, may turn out to be the most important work he ever did, building an audience of scientifically and socially aware adults. He had used topical materials throughout his series, but in 1959 his Starship Troopers was regarded by the Scribner's editorial staff as too controversial for their prestige line and was rejected summarily. Heinlein felt himself released from the constraints of writing for children and began to write "my own stuff, my own way," and came out with a series of challenging books that redrew the boundaries of science fiction, including his best-known work, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966).

Beginning in 1970, however, Heinlein had a series of health crises, punctuated by strenuous work. The decade began with a life-threatening attack of peritonitis, recovery from which required more than two years. But as soon as he was well enough to write, he began work on Time Enough for Love (1973), which introduced many of the themes found in his later fiction. In the mid-1970s he wrote two articles for the Britannica Compton Yearbook.[9] He and Ginny crisscrossed the country helping to reorganize blood donation in the U.S., and he was guest of honor at a World Science Fiction Convention for the third time at Kansas City, Missouri in 1976. While vacationing in Tahiti in early 1978, he suffered a transient ischemic attack. Over the next few months, he became more and more exhausted, and his health again began to decline. The problem was determined to be a blocked carotid artery, and he had one of the earliest carotid bypass operations to correct the blockage. Asked to appear before a Joint Committee of the U.S. House and Senate that year, he testified on his belief that spin-offs from space technology were benefitting the infirm and the elderly. His surgical treatment re-energized Heinlein, and he wrote five novels from 1980 until he died in his sleep from emphysema and congestive heart failure on May 8, 1988, as he was putting together the early notes for another World as Myth novel. Several of his works have been published posthumously.[10]




Early work, 1939–1960

The first novel that Heinlein wrote, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (1939), did not see print during his lifetime, but Robert James later tracked down the manuscript and it was published in 2003. Although a failure as a novel,[11] being little more than a disguised lecture on Heinlein's social theories, it is intriguing as a window into the development of Heinlein's radical ideas about man as a social animal, including free love. The root of many themes found in his later stories can be found in this book.

It appears that Heinlein at least attempted to live in a manner consistent with these ideals, even in the 1930s, and had an open relationship in his marriage to his second wife, Leslyn. He was also a nudist;[12] nudism and body taboos are frequently discussed in his work. At the height of the cold war, he built a bomb shelter under his house, like the one featured in Farnham's Freehold.[12]

After For Us, The Living, Heinlein began selling (to magazines) first short stories, then novels, set in a Future History, complete with a timeline of significant political, cultural, and technological changes. A chart of the future history was published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding. Over time, Heinlein wrote many novels and short stories that deviated freely from the Future History on some points, while maintaining consistency in some other areas. The Future History was also eventually overtaken by actual events. These discrepancies were explained, after a fashion, in his later World as Myth stories.

Heinlein's first novel published as a book, Rocket Ship Galileo, was initially rejected because going to the moon was considered too far out, but he soon found a publisher, Scribner's, that began publishing a Heinlein juvenile once a year for the Christmas season.[13] Eight of these books were illustrated by Clifford Geary in a distinctive white-on-black scratchboard style.[14] Some representative novels of this type are Have Space Suit—Will Travel, Farmer in the Sky, and Starman Jones.[15] There has been speculation that Heinlein's intense obsession with his privacy[16] was due at least in part to the apparent contradiction between his unconventional private life and his career as an author of books for children, but For Us, The Living also explicitly discusses the political importance Heinlein attached to privacy as a matter of principle.

The novels that he wrote for a young audience are a mixture of adolescent and adult themes. Many of the issues that he takes on in these books have to do with the kinds of problems that adolescents experience. His protagonists are usually very intelligent teenagers who have to make a way in the adult society they see around them. On the surface, they are simple tales of adventure, achievement, and dealing with stupid teachers and jealous peers.

However, Heinlein was a vocal proponent of the notion that juvenile readers were far more sophisticated and able to handle complex or difficult themes than most people realized. Thus even his juvenile stories often had a maturity to them that make them readable for adults. Red Planet, for example, portrays some very subversive themes, including a revolution in which young students are involved; his editor demanded substantial changes in this book's discussion of topics such as the use of weapons by adolescents and the confused sexuality of the Martian character. Heinlein was always aware of the editorial limitations put in place by the editors of his novels and stories, and while he observed those restrictions on the surface, was often successful in introducing ideas not often seen in other authors' juvenile SF.

In 1957, James Blish wrote that one reason for Heinlein's success "has been the high grade of machinery which goes, today as always, into his story-telling. Heinlein seems to have known from the beginning, as if instinctively, technical lessons about fiction which other writers must learn the hard way (or often enough, never learn). He does not always operate the machinery to the best advantage, but he always seems to be aware of it."[17]

Heinlein's last juvenile novel, and probably his most controversial work in general, was the 1959 Starship Troopers, which he wrote in response to the U.S.'s decision to unilaterally end nuclear testing.[18] The book's main political idea is that there should be no conscription, but that suffrage should belong only to those who have earned it through government or military service.


Mid-Period work, 1961–1973

From about 1961 (Stranger in a Strange Land) to 1973 (Time Enough for Love), Heinlein wrote some of his most controversial novels. His work during this period explored his most important themes, such as individualism, libertarianism, and physical and emotional love. To some extent, the apparent discrepancy between these works and the more naïve themes of his earlier novels can be attributed to his own perception, which was probably correct, that readers and publishers in the 1950s were not yet ready for some of his more radical ideas. He did not publish Stranger in a Strange Land until some time after it was written, and the themes of free love and radical individualism are prominently featured in his long-unpublished first novel, For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs.[19] The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress tells of a war of independence of Lunar colonies, with significant commentary regarding the threat posed by any government — including a republic — to individual freedom.

Although Heinlein had previously written a few short stories in the fantasy genre, during this period he wrote his first fantasy novel, Glory Road, and in Stranger in a Strange Land and I Will Fear No Evil, he began to mix hard science with fantasy, mysticism, and satire of organized religion. Critics William H. Patterson, Jr., and Andrew Thornton[20] believe that this is simply an expression of Heinlein's longstanding philosophical opposition to positivism. Heinlein stated that he was influenced by James Branch Cabell in taking this new literary direction. The next-to-last novel of this period, I Will Fear No Evil, is according to critic James Gifford "almost universally regarded as a literary failure," and he attributes its shortcomings to Heinlein's near-death from peritonitis.[21]


Later work, 1980–1987

After a seven-year hiatus brought on by poor health, Heinlein produced five new novels in the period from 1980 (The Number of the Beast) to 1987 (To Sail Beyond the Sunset). These books have a thread of common characters and time and place. They most explicitly communicated Heinlein's philosophies and beliefs, and many long, didactic passages of dialog and exposition deal with government, sex, and religion. These novels are controversial among his readers, and some critics have written about them very negatively.[22] Heinlein's four Hugo awards were all for books written before this period.

Some of these books, such as The Number of the Beast and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, start out as tightly constructed adventure stories, but transform into philosophical fantasias at the end. It is a matter of opinion whether this demonstrates a lack of attention to craftsmanship or a conscious effort to expand the boundaries of science fiction into a kind of magical realism, continuing the process of literary exploration that he had begun with Stranger in a Strange Land. Most of the novels from this period are recognized by critics as forming an offshoot from the Future History series, and referred to by the term World as Myth.[23]

The tendency toward authorial self-referentialism begun in Stranger in a Strange Land and Time Enough For Love becomes even more evident in novels such as The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, whose first-person protagonist is a disabled military veteran who becomes a writer, and finds love with a female character who, like all of Heinlein's strong female characters, appears to be based closely on his wife Ginny. The self-parodying element of these books keeps them from bogging down by taking themselves too seriously, but may also fail to evoke the desired effect in readers who are not familiar with Heinlein's earlier novels. Many readers are split on their reactions to Heinlein's wit, particularly in his dialogue — characters from a plethora of milieus tend to favor the same midwestern-American, post-Depression style and referents. Some find it charming and disarming. Others attack it as unsophisticated.

The 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice is a sharp satire of fundamentalist Christianity.


Posthumous Publications

Several Heinlein works have been published since his death, including the aforementioned For Us, The Living as well as 1989's Grumbles from the Grave, a collection of letters between Heinlein and his editors and agent, 1992's Tramp Royale, a travelogue of a southern hemisphere tour the Heinleins took in the 1950s, Take Back Your Government, a how-to book about participatory democracy written in 1946, and a tribute volume called Requiem: Collected Works and Tributes to the Grand Master, containing some additional short works previously unpublished in book form. Off the Main Sequence, published in 2005, includes three short stories never before collected in any Heinlein book (Heinlein called them "stinkeroos.")

Spider Robinson, a colleague, friend, and admirer of Heinlein, wrote Variable Star, based on an outline and notes for a juvenile novel that Heinlein prepared in 1955. The novel was published as a collaboration, with Heinlein's name above Robinson's on the cover, in 2006.


Ideas, themes, and influence



Heinlein's writing may appear to have oscillated wildly across the political spectrum. His first novel, For Us, The Living, consists largely of speeches advocating the Social Credit system, and the early story "Misfit" deals with an organization which seems to be Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps translated into outer space. While Stranger in a Strange Land was embraced by the hippie counterculture, and Glory Road can be read as an antiwar piece, some have deemed Starship Troopers militaristic, and To Sail Beyond the Sunset, published during the Reagan administration, was stridently right-wing.

There are, however, certain threads in Heinlein's political thought that remain constant. A strong current of libertarianism runs through his work, as expressed most clearly in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. His early juvenile novels often contain a surprisingly strong anti-authority message, as in his first published novel Rocket Ship Galileo, which has a group of boys blasting off in a rocket ship in defiance of a court order. A similar defiance of a court order to take a moon trip takes place in the short story "Requiem." In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, the unjust Lunar Authority that controls the lunar colony is usually referred to simply as "Authority," which points to an obvious interpretation of the book as a parable for the evils of authority in general, rather than the evils of one particular authority.

Heinlein was opposed to any encroachment of religion into government; he pilloried organized religion in Job: A Comedy of Justice, and, with more subtlety and ambivalence, in Stranger in a Strange Land. His future history includes a period called the Interregnum, in which a backwoods revivalist becomes dictator of the United States. Positive descriptions of the military (Between Planets, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Red Planet, Starship Troopers) tend to emphasize the individual actions of volunteers in the spirit of the Minutemen of colonial America. Conscription and the military as an extension of the government are portrayed in Time Enough for Love, Glory Road, and Starship Troopers as being poor substitutes for the volunteers who, ideally, should be defending a free society.

To those on the right, Heinlein's ardent anti-communism during the Cold War era might appear to contradict his earlier efforts in the socialist EPIC and Social Credit movements; however, it should be noted that both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party were very active during the 1930s, and the distinction between socialism and communism was well understood by those on the left. Heinlein spelled out his strong concerns regarding communism in a number of nonfiction pieces, including "Who are the heirs of Patrick Henry?", an anti-communist polemic published as a newspaper advertisement in 1958; and articles such as "Pravda Means Truth" and "Inside Intourist," in which he recounted his visit to the USSR and advised Western readers on how to evade official supervision on such a trip.

Many of Heinlein's stories explicitly spell out a view of history which could be compared to Marx's: social structures are dictated by the materialistic environment. Heinlein would perhaps have been more comfortable with a comparison with Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis. In Red Planet, Doctor MacRae links attempts at gun control to the increase in population density on Mars. (This discussion was edited out of the original version of the book at the insistence of the publisher.) In Farmer in the Sky, overpopulation of Earth has led to hunger, and emigration to Ganymede provides a "life insurance policy" for the species as a whole; Heinlein puts a lecture in the mouth of one of his characters toward the end of the book in which it is explained that the mathematical logic of Malthusianism can lead only to disaster for the home planet. A subplot in Time Enough for Love involves demands by farmers upon Lazarus Long's bank, which Heinlein portrays as the inevitable tendency of a pioneer society evolving into a more dense (and, by implication, more decadent and less free) society. This episode is an interesting example of Heinlein's tendency (in opposition to Marx) to view history as cyclical rather than progressive. Another good example of this is The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, in which a revolution deposes the Authority, but immediately thereafter, the new government falls prey to the inevitable tendency to legislate people's personal lives, despite the attempts of one of the characters, who describes himself as a "rational anarchist."



Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.

Heinlein grew up in the era of racial segregation in the United States and wrote some of his most influential fiction at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement. His early juveniles were very much ahead of their time both in their explicit rejection of racism and in their inclusion of non-white protagonists — in the context of science fiction before the 1960s, the mere existence of dark-skinned characters was a remarkable novelty, with green occurring more often than brown. For example, his second juvenile, the 1948 Space Cadet, explicitly uses aliens as a metaphor for human racial minorities: "That's just race prejudice. A Venerian is easier to like than a man." "...that's not fair ... Matt hasn't got any race prejudice. .. Take Lieutenant Peters—did it make any difference to us that he's as black as the ace of spades?" In this example, as in books written throughout his career, Heinlein challenges his readers' possible racial stereotypes by introducing a strong, sympathetic character, only to reveal much later that he is of African descent. This also occurs in, e.g., The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and Tunnel in the Sky; in several cases, the covers of the books show characters as being light-skinned, when in fact the text states, or at least implies, that they are dark-skinned or of African descent.[24] The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Podkayne of Mars both contain incidents of racial prejudice or injustice against their protagonists.[25] Heinlein repeatedly denounced racism in his non-fiction works, including numerous examples in Expanded Universe.

Race was a central theme in some of Heinlein's fiction. The most prominent example is Farnham's Freehold, which casts a white family into a future in which white people are the slaves of black rulers. In the 1941[26] novel Sixth Column (also known as The Day After Tomorrow), a resistance movement defends itself against an invasion by an Asian fascist state (the "Pan-Asians") using a "super-science" technology that allows ray weapons to be tuned to specific races. The idea for the story was pushed on Heinlein by editor John W. Campbell, and Heinlein wrote later that he had "had to reslant it to remove racist aspects of the original story line" and that he did not "consider it to be an artistic success."[27] Sixth Column concentrates more on the Japanese, and was first serialized in 1941, the year of the Pearl Harbor attack, although it was not published in book form until 1949, the year of the revolution in China. Tunnel in the Sky and Farmer in the Sky were both written after the revolution. The protagonist in Starship Troopers is Filipino, and "Tiger" Kondo in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is a cameo appearance by Yoji Kondo, a NASA scientist of Heinlein's acquaintance who also edited the tribute volume Requiem. The protagonist in Between Planets is assisted by a Chinese restaurant owner, a major character in the book. In The Star Beast, a harried African bureaucrat is sympathetically portrayed as the behind-the-scenes master of the world government's foreign policy, while several other (presumably white) officials are portrayed variously as misguided, foolish, or well-meaning but parochial and prejudiced.

Some of the alien species in Heinlein's fiction can be interpreted in terms of an allegorical representation of human ethnic groups. Double Star, Red Planet, and Stranger in a Strange Land all deal with tolerance and understanding between humans and Martians. Several of his stories, such as "Jerry Was a Man," The Star Beast, and Red Planet, involve the idea of nonhumans who are incorrectly judged as being less than human. Although it has been suggested that the strongly hierarchical and anti-individualistic "bugs" in Starship Troopers were meant to represent the Chinese or Japanese, Heinlein wrote the book in response to the unilateral ending of nuclear testing by the U.S., so it is more likely that they were intended to represent communism. Indeed, Heinlein suggests in the book that the bugs are a good example of communism being something that humans cannot adhere successfully to, since humans are of individual minds, whereas the bugs, being a collective, can all contribute to the whole without consideration of individual desire. The slugs in The Puppet Masters are likewise explicitly and repeatedly identified as metaphors for communism. A problem with interpreting aliens as stand-ins for races of homo sapiens is that Heinlein's aliens generally occupy an entirely different mental world than humans. For example, an alien race depicted in Methuselah's Children, the Jockaira, are sentient domesticated animals ruled by a second, godlike species. In his early juvenile fiction, the Martians and Venerians are usually depicted as ancient, wise races who seldom deign to interfere in human affairs.


Individualism and self-determination

Many of Heinlein's novels are stories of revolts against political oppression, for example:

But in keeping with his belief in individualism, his work for adults — and sometimes even his work for juveniles — often portrays both the oppressors and the oppressed with considerable ambiguity. In Glory Road, a monarch is depicted positively, and in The Star Beast, a publicity-shy bureaucrat is sympathetically portrayed as the behind-the-scenes controller of the planetary government's foreign relations — while his boss, a career politician, is portrayed as a fool. In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, prerevolutionary life under the Lunar Authority is portrayed as a kind of anarchist or libertarian utopia; projections of economic disaster are the true (and secret) justification for the revolution, which brings with it the evils of republican government. Novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Friday revolve around individual rebellions against oppression by society rather than by government. The common thread, then, is the struggle for self-determination of individuals, rather than of nations. However, many of Heinlein's stories revolve around the protagonist's duty (which may be to a nation or to a stray kitten), and a common theme is the character's free choice as to whether to make a self-sacrificing decision.

Heinlein believed that individualism did not go hand-in-hand with ignorance. He believed that an appropriate level of adult competence was achieved through a wide-ranging education, whether this occurred in a classroom or not (as in Citizen of the Galaxy). In his juvenile novels, more than once a character looks with disdain at a student's choice of classwork, saying "Why didn't you study something useful?" In Time Enough For Love, Lazarus Long gives a long list of capabilities that anyone should have, concluding, "Specialization is for insects."

The ability of the individual to create himself is explored deeply in stories such as I Will Fear No Evil, "'All You Zombies—'," and "By His Bootstraps." We are invited to wonder, what would humanity be if we shaped customs to benefit us, and not the other way around? In Heinlein's view, as outlined in For Us, The Living, humanity would not only be happier, but perceptually, behaviorally, and morally aligned with reality.


Sexual liberation

For Heinlein, personal liberation included sexual liberation, and free love was a major subject of his writing starting from the 1939 For Us, The Living. Beyond This Horizon (1942) cleverly subverts traditional gender roles in a scene in which the protagonist demonstrates his archaic gunpowder gun for his friend and discusses how useful it would be in dueling — after which the discussion turns to the shade of his nail polish. "'All You Zombies—'" (1959) is the story of a person who undergoes a sex change operation, goes back in time, has sex with herself, and gives birth to herself.

Sexual freedom and the elimination of sexual jealousy are a major theme of Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), in which the straitlaced nurse, Jill, acts as a dramatic foil for the less parochial characters, Jubal Harshaw and Mike. Over the course of the story, Jill learns to embrace her innate tendency toward exhibitionism, and to be more accepting of other people's sexuality (e.g., Duke's fondness for pornography). Stranger's treatment of homosexuality is ambiguous. As discussed in more detail in the book's Wikipedia article, two negative references to homosexuality have been interpreted by some readers as being homophobic, but both deal with Jill's hang-ups, and one is a discussion of Jill's thoughts. It is therefore unclear if they reflect Heinlein's own point of view. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, homosexuality is ill-regarded, but accepted as necessary, in an overwhelmingly male society, by the book's point-of-view character. In contrast, homosexuality is regarded with approval — even gusto — in books such as 1970's I Will Fear No Evil, which posits the social recognition of six innate genders, consisting of all possible combinations of male and female, with straight, gay, and bisexual. In The Number of the Beast, a male character discusses unsuccessful homosexual experimentation as a teenager.

In later books, Heinlein dealt with incest and the sexual nature of children. In Time Enough For Love, Lazarus Long uses genetic arguments to initially dissuade a brother and sister he has adopted from sexual experimentation with each other but later arranges for them to be married; he also consummates his strong sexual attraction to his own mother, whom he goes back in time to see again. In some of Heinlein's books, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, for instance, a young woman climbs into her father's lap or bed, but is rebuffed. Later in the same book, when the same woman is unable to dissuade two of her teenage children from having a sexual relationship, she washes her hands of them, sends them to their father (from whom she has separated), and never mentions them again. The protagonist of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls recalls a homosexual experience with a Boy Scouts leader, which he didn't find unpleasant. In Heinlein's treatment of the possibility of sex between adults and adolescents, some readers may feel that he dodges many of the valid reasons for the taboo by portraying the sexual attractions or actual sex as taking place only between Nietzschean supermen, who are so enlightened that they can avoid all the ethical and emotional pitfalls.

Perhaps the greatest form of sexual liberation found in Heinlein's work, from first to last, was his treatment of females. Beginning with For Us, the Living, Heinlein's female characters of all ages were generally competent, intelligent, courageous, powerful, and in control of their lives and situations to the extent circumstances permitted. Those few of his female characters who are weak or helpless are held in contempt by other characters (including other females).

Nonetheless, Heinlein did occasionally incorporate elements of the mid-twentieth century female stereotype in certain characters. In Double Star, for example, the secretary, Penny, while smart and competent, allows her emotions to affect her work — and eventually fulfills the dream of many Fifties secretaries by marrying her boss. Many of the juveniles feature intelligent young women who help save the day (from The Star Beast to Citizen of the Galaxy) — and are romantically inclined towards the protagonist, though not all such relationships end in marriage.



In To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Heinlein has the main character, Maureen, state that the purpose of metaphysics is to ask questions: Why are we here? Where are we going after we die? (and so on), and that "you are not allowed to answer the questions." Asking the questions is the point for metaphysics, but answering them is not, because once you answer them, you cross the line into religion. Maureen does not state a reason for this; she simply remarks that such questions are "beautiful" but lack answers. The implication seems to be as follows: because (as Heinlein held) deductive reasoning is strictly tautological and because inductive reasoning is always subject to doubt, the only source of reliable "answers" to such questions is direct experience — which we do not have. Maureen's son/lover Lazarus Long makes a related remark in Time Enough For Love. In order for us to answer the "big questions" about the universe, Lazarus states at one point, it would be necessary to stand outside the universe.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Heinlein was deeply interested in Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics and attended a number of seminars on the subject. His views on epistemology seem to have flowed from that interest, and his fictional characters continue to express Korzybskian views to the very end of his writing career. Many of his stories, such as "Gulf," "'If This Goes On—'," and Stranger in a Strange Land, depend strongly on the premise, extrapolated from the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that by using a correctly designed language, one can liberate oneself mentally, or even become a superman. He was also strongly affected by the religious philosopher P. D. Ouspensky.[2] Freudianism and psychoanalysis were at the height of their influence during the peak of Heinlein's career, and stories such as Time for the Stars indulged in psychoanalysis. However, he was skeptical about Freudianism, especially after a struggle with an editor who insisted on reading Freudian sexual symbolism into his juvenile novels. He was strongly committed to cultural relativism, and the sociologist Margaret Mader in his novel Citizen of the Galaxy is clearly a reference to Margaret Mead. In the World War II era, cultural relativism was the only intellectual framework that offered a clearly reasoned alternative to racism, which Heinlein was ahead of his time in opposing. Many of these sociological and psychological theories have been criticized, debunked, or heavily modified in the last fifty years, and Heinlein's use of them may now appear credulous and dated to many readers. The critic Patterson says "Korzybski is now widely regarded as a crank,"[28] although others disagree.



Heinlein is usually identified, along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, as one of the three masters of science fiction to arise in the so-called Golden age of science fiction, associated with John W. Campbell and his magazine Astounding. However, in the 1950s he was a leader in bringing science fiction out of the low-paying and less prestigious pulp ghetto. Most of his works, including short stories, have been continuously in print in many languages since their initial appearance and are still available as new paperbacks years after his death.

Heinlein crater on Mars.
Heinlein crater on Mars.

He was at the top of his form during, and himself helped to initiate, the trend toward social science fiction, which went along with a general maturing of the genre away from space opera to a more literary approach touching on such adult issues as politics and human sexuality. In reaction to this trend, hard science fiction began to be distinguished as a separate subgenre, but paradoxically Heinlein is also considered a seminal figure in hard science fiction, due to his extensive knowledge of engineering, and the careful scientific research demonstrated in his stories. Heinlein himself stated — with obvious pride — that in the days before pocket calculators, he once worked for several days on a mathematical equation describing an Earth-Mars rocket orbit, which was then subsumed in a single sentence of one of his short stories.

Heinlein has had a massive influence on other science fiction writers. In a 1953 poll of leading science fiction authors, he was cited more frequently as an influence than any other modern writer.[29] In 1974, he won the first Grand Master Award given by the Science Fiction Writers of America for lifetime achievement. Critic James Gifford writes that "Although many other writers have exceeded Heinlein's output, few can claim to match his broad and seminal influence. Scores of science fiction writers from the prewar Golden Age through the present day loudly and enthusiastically credit Heinlein for blazing the trails of their own careers, and shaping their styles and stories."[30]

Outside the science fiction community, several words coined or adopted by Heinlein have passed into common English usage: waldo, TANSTAAFL, moonbat, [31] and grok. He was influential in making space exploration seem to the public more like a practical possibility. His stories in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post took a matter-of-fact approach to their outer-space setting, rather than the "gee whiz" tone that had previously been common. The documentary-like film Destination Moon advocated a Space Race with the Soviet Union almost a decade before such an idea became commonplace, and was promoted by an unprecedented publicity campaign in print publications. Many of the astronauts and others working in the U.S. space program grew up on a diet of the Heinlein juveniles, as shown by the naming of a crater on Mars after him, and a tribute interspersed by the Apollo 15 astronauts into their radio conversations while on the moon.[32] Heinlein also was guest commentator for Walter Cronkite during Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 moon landing.

There is an active campaign to persuade the Secretary of the Navy to name the new Zumwalt class destroyer DDG-1001 the USS Robert A. Heinlein in honor of his centennial. [8]



Main article is the Robert A. Heinlein bibliography.

Heinlein published 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections during his life. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game derived more or less directly from his work. He wrote a screenplay for one of the films. Heinlein edited an anthology of other writers' SF short stories.

Three non-fiction books and two poems have been published posthumously. One novel has been published posthumously and another was published in September 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.

See also: List of Robert A. Heinlein characters


External links

Bibliography links are in the Robert A. Heinlein bibliography article.


  2. 2.0 2.1 .
  3. See also the biography at the end of For Us, the Living, 2004 edition, p. 261.
  4. Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov
  5. Afterword to For Us, the Living, 2004 edition, p. 245.
  6. Heinlein was running as a left-wing Democrat in a conservative district, and never made it past the Democratic primary because of trickery by his Republican opponent (afterword to For Us, the Living, 2004 edition, p. 247, and the story "A Bathroom of Her Own"). Also, an unfortunate juxtaposition of events had Konrad Henlein making headlines in the Sudetenlands.
  7. Tramp Royale, 1992, uncorrected proof, ISBN 0-441-82184-7, p. 62
  9. On Paul Dirac and antimatter, and on blood chemistry. A version of the former, titled "Paul Dirac, Antimatter, and You," was published in the anthology Expanded Universe, and demonstrates both Heinlein's skill as a popularizer and his lack of depth in physics; an afterword gives a normalization equation and presents it, incorrectly, as being the Dirac equation.
  10. Based on an outline and notes created by Heinlein in 1955, Spider Robinson has written the novel Variable Star. Heinlein's posthumously published nonfiction includes a selection of letters edited by his wife, Virginia, his book on practical politics written in 1946, a travelogue of their first around-the-world tour in 1954. Podkayne of Mars and Red Planet, which were edited against his wishes in their original release, have been reissued in restored editions. Stranger In a Strange Land was originally published in a shorter form, but both the long and short versions are now simultaneously available in print.
  11. Biographer Bill Patterson, for example, refers to it as "a failed (science fiction) novel:"
  12. 12.0 12.1
  13. Robert A. Heinlein, Expanded Universe, foreword to "Free Men," p. 207 of Ace paperback edition.
  15. Many of these were first published in serial form under other titles, e.g., Farmer in the Sky was published as "Satellite Scout" in the Boy Scout magazine Boys' Life.
  16. The importance Heinlein attached to privacy was made clear in his fiction (e.g., For Us, the Living), but also in several well known examples from his life. He had a falling out with Alexei Panshin, who wrote an important book analyzing Heinlein's fiction; Heinlein stopped cooperating with Panshin because he accused Panshin of "[attempting to] pry into his affairs and to violate his privacy." Heinlein wrote to Panshin's publisher threatening to sue, and stating, "You are warned that only the barest facts of my private life are public knowledge..." [1]. In his 1961 speech at WorldCon, where he was guest of honor, he advocated building bomb shelters and caching away unregistered weapons,[2] and his own house in Colorado Springs included a bomb shelter.[3] Heinlein was a nudist, and built a fence around his house in Santa Cruz to keep out the counterculture types who had learned of his ideas through Stranger in a Strange Land [4]. In his later life, Heinlein studiously avoided revealing the story of his early involvement in left-wing politics,[5], and made strenuous efforts to block publication of information he had revealed to prospective biographer Sam Moskowitz.[6]
  17. James Blish, The Issues at Hand, page 52.
  19. The story that Stranger in a Strange Land was used as inspiration by Charles Manson appears to be an urban folk tale; although some of Manson's followers had read the book, Manson himself later said that he had not. It is true that other individuals formed a quasi-religious organization called the Church of All Worlds, after the religion founded by the primary characters in Stranger, but Heinlein had nothing to do with this, either, so far as is known. (see
  20. Patterson and Thornton, 2001.
  21. Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, James Gifford, Nitrosyncretic Press, Sacramento, California, 2000, p. 102.
  22. See, e.g.,, retrieved 19 February 2006.
  23. William H. Patterson, Jr., and Andrew Thornton, The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, p. 128: "His books written after about 1980 ... belong to a series called by one of the central characters 'World as Myth.'" The term Multiverse also occurs in the print literature, e.g., Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, James Gifford, Nitrosyncretic Press, Sacramento, California, 2000. The term World as Myth occurs for the first time in Heinlein's novel The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.
  24. The reference in Tunnel in the Sky is subtle and ambiguous, but at least one college instructor who teaches the book reports that some students always ask, "Is he black?" (see [7]). Critic and Heinlein scholar James Gifford (see bibliography) states: "A very subtle point in the book, one found only by the most careful reading and confirmed by Virginia Heinlein, is that Rod Walker is black. The most telling clues are Rod's comments about Caroline Mshiyeni being similar to his sister, and the "obvious" (to all of the other characters) pairing of Rod and Caroline." The Cat Who Walks Through Walls was published with a dust jacket painting showing the protagonist as pale-skinned, although the book clearly states that he is dark-skinned (see Gifford, p. 68). This was also true of the paperback release of Friday, in which the title character is revealed early on to be fairly dark-skinned (she describes herself as having a "permanent tan"). However, she conceals her skin pigment many times in the course of the novel, and she does indeed take on the identity of a white female at one point.
  25. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress includes an incident in which the protagonist visits the Southern U.S., and is briefly jailed for polygamy, later learning that the "...range of color in Davis family was what got judge angry enough..." to have him arrested. Podkayne of Mars deals briefly with racial prejudice against the protagonist due to her mixed-race ancestry.
  26. The novel was published as a serial in 1941, the year of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was published in book form in 1949.
  27. Robert A. Heinlein, Expanded Universe, foreword to "Solution Unsatisfactory," p. 93 of Ace paperback edition.
  28. Patterson and Thornton, 2001, p. 120
  29. Panshin, p. 3, describing de Camp's Science Fiction Handbook
  30. Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader's Companion, p. xiii
  31. The New York Times Magazine, On Language, by William Safire, 3 September 2006




A critique of Heinlein from a Marxist perspective. Somewhat out of date, since Franklin was not aware of Heinlein's work with the EPIC Movement. Includes a biographical chapter, which incorporates some original research on Heinlein's family background, but contains many of the same omissions and inaccuracies as other 20th-century bios of Heinlein.
A comprehensive bibliography, with roughly one page of commentary on each of Heinlein's works.


Includes an introduction by Spider Robinson, an afterword by Robert E. James with a long biography, and a shorter biographical sketch.
A lengthy essay that treats Heinlein's own autobiographical statements with skepticism.
Contains a shorter version of the Patterson bio.
Incorporates a substantial biographical sketch by Virginia Heinlein, which hews closely to his earlier official bios, omitting the same facts (the first of his three marriages, his early left-wing political activities) and repeating the same fictional anecdotes (the short story contest).
Repeats many incorrect statements from Heinlein's fictionalized professional bio.
Autobiographical notes are interspersed between the pieces in the anthology.
Reprinted by Baen, hardcover October 2003, ISBN 0-7434-7159-8
Reprinted by Baen, paperback July 2005, ISBN 0-7434-9915-8
Electronic edition available at: (not free)

Robert A. Heinlein Novels, Major Short-story Collections, and Nonfiction Robert A. Heinlein at the 1976 World Science Fiction Convention

Future History and World as Myth: Methuselah's Children (1958) | The Past Through Tomorrow (1967) | Time Enough for Love (1973) | The Number of the Beast (1980) | The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985) | To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987)

Scribner's juveniles: Rocket Ship Galileo (1947) | Space Cadet (1948) | Red Planet (1949) | Farmer in the Sky (1950) | Between Planets (1951) | The Rolling Stones (1952) | Starman Jones (1953) | The Star Beast (1954) | Tunnel in the Sky (1955) | Time for the Stars (1956) | Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) | Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958)

Other fiction: For Us, The Living: A Comedy of Customs (1939/2003) | Beyond This Horizon (1942) | Sixth Column (also known as The Day After Tomorrow) (1949) | The Puppet Masters (1951) | Double Star (1956) | The Door into Summer (1957) | Starship Troopers (1959) | Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) | Podkayne of Mars (1963) | Glory Road (1963) | Farnham's Freehold (1965) | The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) | I Will Fear No Evil (1970) | Friday (1982) | Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) | Variable Star (1955/2006)

Nonfiction: Take Back Your Government! (1946/1992) | Tramp Royale (1954/1992) | Expanded Universe (1980) | Grumbles from the Grave (1989)

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