Arguing with Heinlein

Robert Anson Heinlein’s works are a literary treasure. Fans of science fiction should read Heinlein, re-read him, and read about him. But we shouldn’t ever stop arguing with him.

Robert Anson Heinlein’s works are a literary treasure. Fans of science fiction should read Heinlein, re-read him, and read about him. But we shouldn’t ever stop arguing with him.

I don’t think he would have had it any other way, himself. After all, Robert A. Heinlein may have been the Grand Old Man of science fiction, but he wasn’t the type to accept the status quo. He was willing to challenge the establishment and, I think, equally prepared to be challenged.

Heinlein made no secret of his goal as a writer for young boys (yes, boys, not young adults — his words not mine). During his ten years of writing juveniles for Scribner, he followed in the footsteps of Horatio Alger. A writer from a century before, Alger was known for his morality tales which still worked as readable fiction. Heinlein hoped to instill in the young men of the newer generation such traits as honesty, perseverance, and hard work.

His juvenile fiction career ended with Starship Troopers, the ground-breaking prototype for all later military science fiction, which also happened to be well-paced, kept the political diatribes short and to the point, and sported a rather original plot. It was also controversial enough to be rejected by Scribner and end his relationship with them.

It’s not a perfect book. No war in all human history has been so black and white as the interplanetary war against the unrelenting Bugs. Heinlein wrote a literally dehumanized enemy and all his character deaths were heroic. Heinlein believed there was such a thing as a righteous war — he had spent World War II at the Philadelphia Navy Yard as a civilian employee, only after his attempts to enlist were denied multiple times.

But fifteen years later, Joe Haldeman came back from Vietnam with a Purple Heart and a story of his own to tell. The Forever War was a record of his own experiences and a direct response to Heinlein. Where Heinlein’s novel was like a book-length army recruitment poster, Haldeman’s was morally ambiguous, its casualties sudden and pointless, and its survivors alienated from the society they’d been sent to protect. In the end, the war finishes not with a bang but a whimper. It’s revealed that the whole thing was a political misunderstanding blown out of proportion. The parallels to real-world events are left as an exercise to the reader.

It’s Heinlein’s earlier juveniles, however, that are amongst the most politically consistent books by the ever-changeable author. I’ve come to think of them as the libertarian precursors to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is especially clear when reading Farmer in the Sky, Red Planet, and Starman Jones, each of which romanticized frontier life, where self-reliance is a virtue. In a young colony on a harsh planet, after all, there’s no room for whiners or layabouts. Oh, sure, Heinlein will write some characters like that in, as obstacles to our hero. And they may find some temporary gain in shortcuts and deception, but you just know they’ll get their comeuppance in the end. And we’ll cheer.

But libertarianism has the same problem as Marxism as a political theory. It’s based on a simplified version of society that doesn’t really exist. In the real world, not everybody who needs help is lazy. Not everybody who works hard succeeds. Not everybody who succeeds worked hard. Despite this, Heinlein’s intentionally propagandizing juveniles have been largely unchallenged for decades.

Enter Cory Doctorow, who devised a plan “to write a series of stories with the same titles as famous SF shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of SF’s classic narratives.” This project has included responses to Isaac Asimov, Orson Scott Card, and many others.

The best of these is Martian Chronicles (recently published on the podcast StarshipSofa), which takes the same colonial SF premise as Farmer in the Sky, but sets it in a political future much more plausibly extrapolated from today. The Bradbury title reference is a smokescreen — this story is a direct challenge to Heinlein. The late Grand Master was fond of writing characters from less privileged backgrounds who take control of their own destiny through simple American can-do spirit. But Doctorow, writing in the era of globalization and Occupy Wall Street, recognizes that the deck is often stacked.

The protagonist and narrator of Martian Chronicles is the only child of a wealthy family. His parents decide to leave everything behind on Earth for the promised land of the Mars colony’s unfettered free market. He’s long been taught that there’s nothing wrong with being well off, if you’ve earned it. The entitlement mentality of the “povs” (short for poverty) is everything that’s wrong with the world, and part of the reason they’re leaving.

He’s learned to disdain “whiners,” and his understanding is that if everyone in the world were hard-working like his parents and their upper-class friends, everyone would be better off. His parents’ greatest fear is an out-of-control welfare state bringing down society. But his assumptions are challenged when he makes a new friend on the ship, a humble young pov from Bangladesh who, by any possible measure, is more competent, more committed, and more deserving of being there than he is. But unlike our humble narrator, no one wants to give this guy a chance.

Doctorow does a decent job expressing the self-entitled rich kid point of view, though not as good a job as he does dismantling it. His hero was raised to believe that the people who have probably deserve it, and the people who have not, don’t. He’s therefore shocked to hear about a wealthy company finagling with government officials and legal loopholes to avoid compensating the victims of poor safety standards. He’s amazed to see the equanimity with which the powerless victims deal with the injustice of the situation, solemnly soldiering on. Little by little, a world opens up before his eyes where success is not commensurate with one’s contributions to the world so much as one’s ability to game the system.

Doctorow is one of the most in-touch writers in the genre today, well aware of current events, the challenges of globalization, and party politics. While other young adult writers centre on white suburbia, his novel, For the Win, is set in the slums of Asia. At the same time, he’s well aware of the hoary science fiction tropes he’s lampooning. Martian Chronicles is rich with subtle references to Golden Age canon. The derogatory term pov clearly parallels the designation “prole” from 1984. The political arguments about success and victim-hood are vintage Heinlein with updated language — albeit with a thick slathering of irony.

It’s tough to strike a balance between making the reader think and simply preaching at him. Doctorow occasionally strays over that line. But it’s still important that somebody responds to the Old Man’s arguments. Not because he’s wrong and Doctorow’s right. It’s not quite so simple as that. Heinlein envisioned a libertarian utopia of honest hard work and self reliance, with everyone starting on a level playing field. Doctorow points out that we’re still a long way from having that level playing field. In fact both viewpoints have some merit, if taken with a grain of salt.

This kind of dialogue is vital because science fiction at its best represents a plurality of viewpoints. Heinlein isn’t the only one who deserves this treatment, this re-examination and engagement, nor is Doctorow the only contemporary author qualified to do so. The Speed of Dark in 2002 provided a counterpoint to Flowers for Algernon from nearly half a century earlier. But one doesn’t replace the other. There should be room on one’s bookshelf for Elizabeth Moon and Daniel Keyes, both.

And even when sometimes the writer is wrong, it can actually be nice to have a book on hand from someone you disagree with. I still make a point of arguing with Heinlein on a regular basis. I recommend it heartily.

J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.

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