“Robert Heinlein could not win a Hugo Award today.”
So says John C. Wright in a recent column in the Intercollegiate Review. Heinlein won the Hugo Award for Best Novel a total of four times: for Double Star in 1956, for Starship Troopers in 1960, for Stranger in a Strange Land in 1962, and for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1967.
So what has changed in the last 47 years? According to Wright, science fiction is now “under the control of the thought police.” I’d like to take a moment to look at Wright’s evidence for that bold claim and consider whether these thought police would indeed deny a Hugo to science fiction’s first Grandmaster.
Wright’s first example is perhaps his strangest. He is concerned that Orson Scott Card has drawn public censure from the SF community, and was dropped from Superman by DC Comics, for his ongoing campaign against marriage equality in America. Of course, it’s a difficult to argue that the World Science Fiction Society (presenters of the Hugos) are systematically prejudiced against Mr. Card given that he won the Hugo Award for Best Novel twice, for Ender’s Game in 1986 and then again the very next year for its sequel Speaker for the Dead. And then he was honoured with a Hugo again in 1991 for his non-fiction work How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.
So I guess if the thought police did usurp control of the SF community, it must have happened in the last 23 years. Certainly, that would explain why Card hasn’t won a Hugo in more than two decades. Though that might be just as easily explained by the fact that he has spent that entire time alternating between increasingly pointless Ender sequels and Book of Mormon fan fiction.
All of which is entirely beside the point. Because even if it is true that advocating against marriage equality makes you an untenable candidate for a Hugo today, that’s anything but cause for Heinlein to worry. In Time Enough for Love, two of the main characters work together and get along famously, but only interact by terminal. Finally, one of the two takes the initiative and asks the other out on a date … to a sex club:
There was a short pause which felt long. The Master Chief Technician said, “Colleague, what sex are you?”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose not. I accept. Now?”
Later in the novel these two characters and four others all marry each other in a polyamorous bisexual union that is displayed in the novel as happy, idyllic, and an ideal environment for raising children. Heinlein’s support for homosexuality, transsexuality, and polyamory feature prominently in multiple others of his novels, including Hugo winners The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land. In fact, the right to self-determination in one’s own sexuality is arguably a central theme in Stranger. If Heinlein’s works were being considered for a Hugo today, there would be no danger of them being found insufficiently open minded on the subject of sexuality.
Wright also takes issue with the expulsion of Theodore Beale (a.k.a. Vox Day) from the SFWA, suggesting that it indicates a penchant for intolerance and censorship in the professional SF community. Take that with a grain of salt; Beale was expelled for writing an explicitly racist rant (in which he calls the African American writer N.K. Jemisin a “half-savage”) and then using a SFWA twitter feed to promote it. Beale’s novelette “Opera Vita Aeterna” is currently nominated for a Hugo Award and a grassroots movement has occurred within the SF community to rank No Award higher on the ballot than Beale’s story.
One must imagine that this series of events plays a large role in Wright’s decision to lead his essay with the assertion that today’s thought police would deny Heinlein a Hugo. Of course, Heinlein would never have painted himself into the ugly little corner that Beale now occupies. Heinlein was famously progressive on racial issues. When writing I Will Fear No Evil, Heinlein is on record as having kept three different photos on his writing desk depicting people of three different races and holding all three simultaneously in his mind while writing the protagonist, so dedicated was he to the idea that the character’s race should be largely irrelevant. In other novels, including the Hugo-winning Starship Troopers, Heinlein went out of his way to conceal the race of non-white characters until very late in the story, when the reader is heavily invested in them, in order to challenge the reader’s assumptions about race.
It is certainly true that some of Heinlein’s works, such as Farnham’s Freehold and Sixth Column present difficult ideas about race. But note that neither of these works was ever nominated for a Hugo, let alone won one. And Heinlein himself acknowledged that Sixth Column was “not an artistic success.” In any case, Heinlein appears to have had a far more modern understanding of race issues than does Beale, despite the fact that Heinlein was born in 1907.
Frankly, it may be the case that Heinlein’s novels would receive a cooler reception today, but not for the reasons Wright thinks. For one thing, the genre has matured and the craft has improved. I’m pretty comfortable saying that the best writers of today are turning out better works than their forebears. When you stand on the shoulders of giants after all, you still end up taller than them. Heinlein, though, is a titan.
Another thing is that some of his early controversial work has simply become outdated. Stranger in a Strange Land would have less impact today not because it is too transgressive, but for the exact opposite reason. Much of what was shocking when Stranger came out is accepted and commonplace today. In the case of Starship Troopers, we’re talking about a pro-military polemic that addressed a war-fatigued nation questioning the value of its military institutions. In that sense, it seems very topical, though the military concerns of the present are not the military concerns of the early 60s and I suspect Starship Troopers released today would simply seem out of touch and missing the point.
But Double Star and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? If either of those appeared on the 2014 ballot for Best Novel, I would bet my last dollar on Heinlein taking home the prize, even with the handicap of having been written half a century ago. And without that handicap, well, as John Scalzi puts it on MetaFilter:
I imagine that if Heinlein (or his quietly cultivated and therefore relatively youthful clone) were alive and writing today, his response to this sort of thinking would be, “The hell with you lot. I have a career I’m working on.” And then he’d write a 2014 version of a Heinlein book that would knock a bunch of readers on their asses, and then, sooner rather than later, he’d walk off with a rocketship.
Leaving Heinlein out of it for a moment, the crux of Wright’s essay comes down to two things:
- Science fiction used to be a bastion of open-mindedness
- Science fiction is now a den of close-minded liberal groupthink
In response to the first point, maybe. Science fiction fandom of the day was very progressive relative to the culture at large. All the same, it’s worth noting that Samuel Delaney never managed to take home a Best Novel Hugo despite penning several novels that are widely regarded as among the best works of art to ever come out of genre literature. Delaney was named an SFWA Grandmaster in 2013.
As for the second point, not a chance. For the past few years, science fiction has actually been working to overcome an image problem resulting from the entrenchment of certain paternalistic old farts in the fandom. Society at large has matured around us, but SF fandom has had trouble progressing much beyond its “ahead of the curve for the 1950s” beginnings. It’s not the thought police coming after Wright and Beale. It’s the thought gerontologists.
D.F. McCourt is the editor of AE.