Remembering Robert A. Heinlein – Watts Up With That?

Remembering Robert A. Heinlein – Watts Up With That?


Commentary by Kip Hansen – 2 June 2021

There is a certain beauty in remembering the great influences of one’s youth.  For me, one of those influences was Robert Anson Heinlein who could reasonably be called one of the the world’s greatest writers of science fiction.

His books and stories – which first began to appear in 1939 with the publishing of Life-Linerepresented the very best of the space-age hard-science fiction genera of the 20th century.  I am older, but not old enough to have read Life-Line in Astounding when it was first published, but I read it twenty years later as a precocious pre-teen-aged boy bent on reading every single science fiction book and every edition of every pulp science fiction magazine that could be found in the main branch of the Los Angeles County Library.   By the time I was 15, I had accomplished that dubiously important feat.

As part of that rather mad reading binge, I read everything that Heinlein had written to date, and then read everything he published since then as it became available until his death in 1988.   I bet that many of you who were born in the first decade after World War II and went on to study science and engineering read Heinlein as well.

Heinlein was one of the core members of the stable of SciFi writers assembled by John W. Campbell  — editor of Astounding which later  became  Analog Science Fiction  — who was responsible for much of the success of the whole genera.  Isaac Asimov called Campbell “the most powerful force in science fiction ever” and said the “first ten years of his editorship he dominated the field completely.”

Heinlein himself was often referred to as “the ‘dean of science fiction writers,’ Robert A. Heinlein was one of the leading figures of science fiction’s Golden Age and one of the authors most responsible for establishing the science fiction novel as a publishing category.” [ Keith Booker et al. The Science Fiction Handbook ]

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy and serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1930s and was discharged in 1934 because he contracted tuberculosis, undergoing lengthy hospitalization.  Living on his naval disability pension, Heinlein turned to writing, selling his first story, Life-Line,  to John Campbell at Astounding and the rest is history. 

Interestingly, Heinlein was an engineer by training, and spent the years of WWII “as a civilian aeronautical engineer at the Navy Aircraft Materials Center at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in Pennsylvania. Heinlein recruited Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp to also work there.  While at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards, Asimov, Heinlein, and de Camp brainstormed unconventional approaches to kamikaze attacks, such as using sound to detect approaching planes.”  [ wiki ]

SciFi fans will know that Asimov and Sprague de Camp were also core authors publishing in Campbell’s  Astounding along with two other SciFi greats Theodore Sturgeon and Arthur C. Clarke and, of course, Campbell himself was writing under his own name and several pen names: Don A. Stuart, Karl Van Kampen and Arthur McCann.

Even if you don’t know Heinlein from reading his books, you will have been exposed to his contributions to modern English. You may hear some young pretty Hollywood star/starlet say that they “really grok that”. They’ve made whole movies about “pay it forward”.  Engineers  or robotics designers will know what a “waldo” is.  And you have yourself have called someone a “moonbat” (from the story Space Jockey).

Heinlein’s book, Stranger in a Strange Land, spawned a series of small cult groups based on the social structure described in the book and one incorporated Church whose founder took the ideas in the book way too seriously.  In the early 1970s, I personally knew a young man that ran off to join a Stranger cult.

Heinlein wrote and wrote, during his 81-year lifetime:

“The Robert A. Heinlein bibliography includes 32 novels, 59 short stories and 16 collections published during his life. Four films, two TV series, several episodes of a radio series, and a board game derive 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, an unusual collaboration, was published in 2006. Four collections have been published posthumously.

Known pseudonyms include Anson MacDonald (7 times), Lyle Monroe (7), John Riverside (1), Caleb Saunders (1), and Simon York (1). All the works originally attributed to MacDonald, Saunders, Riverside and York, and many of the works originally attributed to Lyle Monroe, were later reissued in various Heinlein collections and attributed to Heinlein.” [ source ]

Heinlein had influence far outside the SciFi world, as did many other SciFi authors.  For instance:

“In 1980 Robert Heinlein was a member of the Citizens Advisory Council on National Space Policy, chaired by Jerry Pournelle, which met at the home of SF writer Larry Niven to write space policy papers for the incoming Reagan Administration. Members included such aerospace industry leaders as former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, General Daniel O. Graham, aerospace engineer Max Hunter and North American Rockwell VP for Space Shuttle development George Merrick. Policy recommendations from the Council included ballistic missile defense concepts which were later transformed into what was called the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” as derided by Senator Ted Kennedy. Heinlein assisted with Council contribution to the Reagan “Star Wars” speech of Spring 1983.”

One example of the depth of Heinlein’s reach into our society in general is illustrated by the fictional song “Green Hills of Earth” from the story of the same title — fictionally written by a blind space-going engineer named “Noisy” Rhysling presented as a radiation-blinded, unemployable spaceship engineer crisscrossing the solar system writing and singing songs.  The song has verses and fragments of verses attributed to it not only in Heinlein’s own stories over the years, but in the work many other science fiction writers of the day and since.  One of the most recent examples shows up in the naming of a crater on the moon:       

“The Apollo XV astronauts named a number of craters in their landing area after favorite science fiction stories. Near “Dune” (after the Frank Herbert novel) and “Earthlight” (Arthur C. Clarke) craters was “Rhysling” crater, named after the blind singer of the spaceways in “The Green Hills of Earth.” [ source ]

You can listen to Leonard Nimoy read “The Green Hills of Earth” in the three part YouTube series:  Part 1Part 2,   Part 3.

Not everyone is a Heinlein fan.  Not everyone liked his politics – I ignored them personally.  Not everyone liked his views on social structure and sexuality.  If he had written things that everyone would like or lived a life that everyone would approve of, he would not have been one of the greats.

My favorite quote from the master is this:

“There are but two ways of forming an opinion in science. One is the scientific method; the other, the scholastic. One can judge from experiment, or one can blindly accept authority. To the scientific mind, experimental proof is all important, and theory merely a convenience in description, to be junked when it no longer fits. To the academic mind, authority is everything and facts are junked when they do not fit theory laid down by authority” – Robert A. Heinlein in the short story Life-Line.

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Author’s Comment:

I’d like to hear from readers with their thoughts and impressions. Not restricted to Heinlein, there were so many greats in the 1940-1980 SciFi scene.

Why bring up Heinlein today?    I friend has been reading my stuff here over the years and sent the final quote after reading my essay on Hurricane Sandy and storm surge damage

Address comments to “Kip…” if speaking to me.

Thanks for reading.

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